Arwen’s Yarn

Early this summer I visited the alpacas at Stargazer Ranch in Loveland, Colorado. I left with some fleece from Arwen.

I’ve blogged about my trials in cleaning and carding the fleece, but now my efforts have paid off. I have 875 yards of sportweight alpaca in a luscious chestnut color. I photographed this yarn while waiting for a wardrobe change at a recent photo shoot for an upcoming book that will be published by Interweave Press. (I’m the editor of this book but am not allowed to disclose information about it yet.) Encouraged by the amount of yarn I produced, I’ll probably knit it into some sort of warm lace shawl.

The photographer’s assistant, Scotty, was suitably impressed with my yarn and modeled it for me.

Now, there’s an fashionable look!

SOAR Recap

Two weeks ago (has it really been two weeks already?), I had the good fortune to attend Interweave’s premier spinning retreat SOAR (i.e., SpinOff Autumn Retreat) on scholarship. This year, the retreat was in Manchester, New Hampshire, and although the trees weren’t quite yet at the peak of fall beauty, my breath was taken away by all that I learned in five intensive days of spinning. I’m quite certain that I will continue to spin until I’m too feeble to sit upright and hold fleece.

For the first three days, I took Blending and Spinning for Superior Socks by master spinner Michelle Boyd. The most striking things I learned in Michelle’s class are:

  • Socks are more durable if knitted from yarn spun in the worsted method, which is slower than woolen spinning but results in a stronger and smoother yarn that is less likely to wear out or pill.
  • Socks are best if knitted from yarn that has NOT been treated for washability. This is because in making a yarn superwash, the scales on the individual fibers are smoothed down (so they won’t felt). Although this makes for a soft hand and easy washability, socks (and any other garments) knitted from superwash wool have less inherent elasticity and tend to stretch out. I guess that’s why my socks tend to “grow” on my feet by the end of the day.
  • Socks should be knitted with three-ply yarn, which is smoother and more durable than two-ply yarn. Three-ply yarns are also more round when viewed in cross section, which adds structural strength and insulation. They also help prevent shrinkage, as the close-set plies allow little room for fiber compaction. This probably explains why my favorite sock yarns have always been ones with three or five plies.
  • For durability, sock yarn should contain about 20% of a strong extruded fiber such as nylon, rayon, or silk.
  • Socks knitted with the ideal yarn may feel a little stiff on the needles but with will soften and form to the foot after being washed and worn, and they will last longer than socks knitted from softer yarns.
After three days, I was able to produce a fairly consistent three-ply worsted-spun yarn out of a variety of fiber combinations, including blue-face leicester, merino, alpaca, nylon, bamboo, and silk.
And I got reasonably good at chain-plying my samples. Here is a sample of spaced-dyed fleece that I spun, then chain-plied to maintain the color blocks. Thanks to Michelle Boyd for taking a photo of my hands holding the precious yarn.
I also took four half-day workshops.
In South American Camelids by Robin Russo, I learned a bit about camel, alpaca, guanaco, and vicuna fibers and I tried my hand at spinning an assortment of them.
From top to bottom: two samples of natural alpaca; lavender alpaca blended with gray Cormo; pin-drafted Suri alpaca; Suri alpaca top; mixed llama hair and down, combed; distinct double-coat llama; homogeneous llama; guanaco top; blend of llama and alpaca; baby Suri alpaca:


In An Overview of Rare Breeds by Deborah Robson, I test-spun a variety of wool fibers not widely available but worth looking for.
From top to bottom: Hog Island; North Ronaldsay, Wenselydale, American Jacob, Manx Laughton (my favorite!), Clun Forest, and Black Welsh Mountain:


In Navajo Spinning and Handcarding by D.Y. Begay, I tried my hand at using a four-foot Navajo spindle. In addition to twisting some singles, I learned enough to know that I’ll leave this technique to the experts.


In Spinning Singles from Commercially-Prepared and Dyed Top by Deb Menz, I learned to make intentional color sequences from dyed fleece. This was a great way to wrap up the retreat–I broke out of my mud-color rut and played with bright and exciting colors. My vibrant skein of over-twisted singles still makes me giddy.


When I wasn’t in class, I enjoyed meeting some of the most welcoming and interesting people in my life. Unlike the stereotypical hippy throw-backs to the 1960s, spinners include people from every walk of life. And judging from the people I met at SOAR, they are the most fun-loving people on the planet.
Sign me up for next year!

Ann’s Folly

Back in June, some friends and I visited a nearby alpaca farm and I got the bonehead idea to challenge my friend Sarah to a friendly competition where we’d split a fleece and each make something with it. We chose the first cut of a fleece taken from a cute Huacaya named Arwen (you can see photos of farm and Arwen on my post for June 26, 2011). Here’s my share of the fleece.

The fleece looked clean at the farm, but when I prepared to wash it I discovered a lot of sand, dust, and bits of grass. I washed it a few times but couldn’t shake the sinking feeling that this was going to be a bigger job than I thought, especially once I started picking through the fleece to open the fibers in preparation for spinning. I worked on it on and off since July and finally have collected the “clean” fiber. I think I discarded nearly a third of the original.

When I bought the fleece, I didn’t stop to think that I don’t have carders. And I didn’t realize that alpaca requires different carders than wool. Fortunately, I have friends that spin and one of them (thank you Maggie!) loaned me a drum carder appropriate for the fine fleece. I set up the drum carder on the back deck and got to work.

Unfortunately, this particular drum carder is quite old and the drive band wasn’t up to the task. Three times the plastic band snapped and three times I tried to melt the ends back together. On the last try, I wrapped the join with packing tape as well. But it was no use. The darn thing wouldn’t hold together.

So I ended up rotating the small drum manually with my right hand as I used my left to turn the crank to rotate the large drum. It took a couple of days (and a few puncture wounds) to get through all of the fleece. There is still more grass and dust in the fleece than I’d like, but I’ve made it this far and I’m determined to finish. I have about 40 batts, each weighing about 6 grams, which means that I have about 8 ounces of prepared fiber. I have no idea what I’ll make. Whatever it is, it will have to have a rustic feel. Suggestions anyone?

Taking a Spinning Break

Because KnittingDaily is posting my comments about knitting my way through Sock Knitting Master Class (it’s one of the forums), I’ve been asked to slow down until people have a chance to get the book and search their stashes for yarn. I never expected people to actually join me in this crazy venture, but I’m delighted to see that it has drawn some attention. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a whole group of us knit every pair of socks in the book?!
To keep my fingers busy while I take a break, I’ve started spinning some of the alpaca fleece I bought from Stargazer Ranch Alpacas a couple of weeks ago. (Every morning I log onto their website to watch the live cams of the mothers and babies.) So far, I’ve spun half of the “barn blend” I bought and I love it! (I apologize for the blurry photo–I must have been shaking in my excitement.)

I don’t know how much I’ll end up with yet so I’m not sure if I will ply it on itself or with some luscious wool/silk blend (I’m thinking Jaggerspun Zephyr). This has the makings of a gorgeous scarf or shawl.

Saturday at the Farm

Yesterday some friends and I took advantage of an open barn at Stargrazer Ranch Alpacas in nearby Loveland, Colorado to meet their Suri and Huacaya alpacas. We were allowed to go into the field with the animals, which had been sheared a few weeks ago.

Once I got over my shyness, I got close to the alpacas.

Alpacas give birth year round. Here’s a beautiful 3-week old Suri. What a gorgeous chestnut color!

My friend Sarah bought a skein of yarn from this handsome dude (I forgot his name, but I’m sure Sarah hasn’t). As far as I know, Sarah hasn’t decided what to do with the yarn but she couldn’t resist it’s softness and deep brown color (notice how it matches her hair).

Not to be outdone by Sarah, I bought a bit of roving to spin. Here’s 13 ounces of  fleece from Cutie Pie (who has since left the farm) on the left and 8 ounces of barn blend (an assortment of fleeces) on the right. For now, I’m content to just rub the roving against my cheek.

As we were getting ready to leave, we noticed the bags of fleece in the storeroom. Sarah and I couldn’t keep our hands out of the bags and ended up buying the part of the fleece that came off of a mahogany alpaca’s back (reportedly the best part of the fleece). We split the fleece evenly and each came home with 1.1 pounds. We’re thinking we’ll process and knit the fiber as a sort of “group” project. I’ll let you know how it goes.

I took another trip into the field to snap this photo of Arwen, the grand dam who produced that lovely mahogany fleece. The pink collar around Arwen’s neck indicates that she’ll be having a baby soon–it makes her easier to spot in the field in case she needs help.

I Did It

A few days ago, I finished knitting the sweater out of my handspun 3-ply yarn! And I finished it an entire month ahead of my self-imposed deadline of June 1 (I won’t go into what didn’t get accomplished in the last two months).
Even after blocking, the sweater has a wonderful boingy feel that can’t be all attributed to the moss stitch pattern. The yarn really does have more life than a standard commercial merino yarn. But most importantly, this sweater is my color (mud), my size (big and baggy) and my style (plain). Too bad I didn’t plan to have this finished back in January when the temperatures were in the single digits.

With the help of my spinning teacher (Maggie Casey), I learned five ways to make the yarn in a handspun sweater look most even and consistent.
1. Spin about 25% more yarn than you think you’ll need.
2. After spinning, set aside the skeins that look dramatically heavier (or lighter) than the others. Don’t use these skeins.
3. Wind the yarn into many relatively small balls and choose the balls randomly. This helps distribute the slightly thicker and thiner yarns throughout the entire sweater.
4. Use an allover stitch pattern that will also help camouflage differences in yarn thickness.
5. Knit the sweater in the round. This eliminates seams and having to match up pieces that may be slightly different lengths.

Making Progress

I spent most of last week in the mountains with several of my knitting pals. We knitted, watched movies, shopped, and ate very well. I had high hopes of completing my handspun sweater while there, but I still have one sleeve left to knit. In order to spread any yarn variations evenly around the entire sweater, I knitted it from the top down without seams. I picked up stitches for the sleeve around the armhole and worked in rounds to the cuff. I tried a variety of other stitch patterns to set off the lower edge, but they all seemed to distract from the overall look. So, I’ve decided to simply work the non-curling moss stitch to the bind-off edges.

I have 5 balls left, which should be enough to knit the other sleeve and the neckband. So far, I estimate that I’ve spent at least 30 hours already knitting this sweater. I think the spinning and plying took only about 25 hours. I still find it curious that this sweater took less time to spin than to knit. I’m now in the market for fleece to spin for another project. Alpaca might be nice…

Handspun Heaven

To tell the truth, I’ve been a little nervous about knitting up all that yarn I spun for a sweater. I’m having these existentialistic thoughts about how it’s so full of potential right now and that every choice I make will limit the possibilities. So, instead of staying up all night swatching once I finished fulling the yarn, I set it on my desk and have been simply admiring it ever since.

But my self-imposed deadline of June 1 is creeping up. To prepare for knitting this handspun, I asked my spinning teacher (Maggie Casey!) to give me pointers. We sorted through all the skeins and pulled out the three that appeared heavier than the others. That left me with a total of 33 ounces (936 grams) or 1,626 yards (1,487 meters) of reasonably even yarn. Maggie suggested that I wind the skeins into many small balls so that I’d be sure to mix of the skeins as much as possible. She also suggested knitting it in a texture pattern and at a slightly tight gauge to help mask the thickness variations. I think Maggie is brilliant.

I wound the yarn into 25 small balls, which I put on my desk to admire for several days.

Today, I got out my needles and started swatching. This yarn works up to about 5.5 stitches/inch on size 6 needles. I began with stockinette just to get a feel for the yarn. It was every bit as wonderful as I had hoped: the bounce, the loft, the spring! Following Maggie’s advice, I then tried my favorite of stitch patterns–moss stitch. Yum. (And before you all post comments tell me there’s an error in my pattern, I know.) Now I just have to think about exactly what kind of textured modified-drop shoulder, crewneck pullover this will be. While some doors will close, others will open.


I’ve Got Yarn!

This weekend I threw myself a plying party and turned the roughly 900 grams of singles I spun last month into about 2,000 yards of three-ply, honest-to-goodness yarn. I finished plying Saturday night but I was so excited that I couldn’t sleep. I finally got up at 2:30 am Sunday, reviewed Maggie Casey’s instructions in Start Spinning, and proceeded to soak the yarn in warm water and dishwashing detergent, then rinse it with vinegar, then rinse it again with clear water. I squeezed out the excess water with beach towels, “snapped” the damp skeins vigorously a few times, then hung them on the handle of a broken mop to dry. By this time it was 7:30 am and I decided to go back to bed. Later, my oldest son Alex was kind enough to hold the skeins near a window so I could snap this photo. (Notice Alex’s handknitted socks–he decided to wear a matching pair this day.)

It took about 24 hours for the yarn to dry enough to wind into skeins–there are 17 of them of various sizes.

The next step is to wind it into balls and swatch to see exactly what I have. Hopefully, the yarn will “speak” to me as I swatch and I’ll figure out what kind of sweater it wants to be. Most hopefully, there won’t be too much variation in thickness and I’ll be able to get a decent looking garment. I may not sleep tonight in anticipation!

Spinning Progress

I followed the advice Judith MacKenzie McCuin gives in The Intentional Spinner and have been spinning all the singles I’ll need for my handspun sweater before I start to ply. As of today, I have 9 bobbins, each with about 100 grams of singles. Judith advises pairing the bobbins so that the thin and thick singles will even out overall. Problem is, the thickness ranges within each bobbin. I have no idea which ones might be a little thinner are which might be a little thicker. Therefore, I plan to grab the bobbins randomly when it’s time to spin. At this point, my plan is to make a 3-ply yarn that will be between sport and worsted weight. But who know? It may end up bulky weight even though I tried to spin fine singles.