I started two projects to work on over the Thanksgiving weekend while we were with friends in Delaware; a hat for my partner Joan (my fourth attempt to knit a hat she likes...) and a cowl for myself. I would like us both to have something nice and warm to wear when we do farmers markets in December. The hat is in Targhee 2 ply and the cowl is knit with Montadale true woolen spun. For the umpteenth time, when a few rows were complete (just enough to get your fingers on), I was surprised by the flood of pleasure fondling the squishy fabric. I love woolen spun knits, they are so satisfying. I "get religion" all over again, and want to turn other people on to these yarns that might not have that siren call when you see them, but "get you" when you work with and wear them.
This is the season for woolen: warm, insulating yarns that are light in weight and cozy. But...you ask, what makes a yarn woolen? The short answer is woolen yarns are spun with fibers opened up, but going all which ways to trap air inside the yarn. They are lighter in weight, but warmer than worsted spun yarns. They tend to hold their shape, are not "hard wearing" and... they can pill... but they are great (I think the best...) for hats, blankets, sweaters, warm woolen mittens and so many other of my favorite things.
This is the best picture I've been able to take of our most wooly yarn: Montadale woolen, taken with a phone and a magnifier (sorry for the amateur tools):
There are a number of semi-woolen mills in the US, and we like working with many of them, but there is only one true woolen mill left, and it's in Harmony, Maine: Bartlettyarns. Their machinery is called a mule spinner and mimics what hand spinners call long draw. The machine actually drafts the fibers out several yards by pulling back on tracks in the floor (one of these parts are called mules). They spun our Montadale true woolen and created a YouTube video of it. It is a cool thing to see, especially if you've ever spun a woolen yarn yourself.
I finished the dye hard cowl using a new Montadale woolen handpaint: box of 64. I followed the pattern (which was designed for Romney semi-worsted spun) exactly, and the tube portion is longer than the original...great for covering ears if needed, and I like it a lot. Expect to see it on me at the markets. I'm nearly finished with Joan's hat and now I want one! It's the 1898 hat (with ear flaps) and the pattern is free on Revelry and works exactly as written in the Targhee 2 ply yarn.
Woolen spun (the long explanation if you're interested)
To preface...we are talking about design and structure. One of the most basic attributes of a yarn is woolen or worsted spun. It isn't just a question of being one or the other though, there is a continuum of spinning structures with true worsted on one end, true woolen on the far opposite and lots of semi-worsted and semi-woolen yarns in between.
Four factors determine woolen vs worsted: fiber length, fiber preparation, drafting technique and when the twist enters the fibers. There are lots of variations and combinations of these four which is why there are so many "semi"s on our continuum. For right now, lets just talk about one extreme: woolen spun.
Fiber length: in general, shorter fibers are best for woolen spun yarns. I'll say 5 inches and less. For sheep, this covers the vast majority in the world). Fine wools, Down type and Medium wools are great. Also, you can include fibers of various lengths in a woolen spun yarn, so if you are mixing wool from a whole flock, and their fleece is not a consistent length, no problem.
Preparation: after a fleece is sheared and washed, the next step in the yarn making process is called preparation and involves getting the fibers opened up and organized in the way you want. In woolen preparation, you want to have them organized in a jumbled sort of non-alignment. This is done by carding the fibers. Handspinners might use hand cards (which look like two dog brushes with wire teeth) taking a small handfull of wool at a time, "carding" it back and forth to open and smooth the fibers and then roll it off into little cigar shaped rolls called rolags. Now the fibers are loose, but organized in a spiral. Mills use large carding machines which look a bit like printing presses with lots of different sized rollers all covered with the same matrix of little wires that do the same thing creating nicely prepared "roving" that comes out on the other end.
Drafting: this is the first part of the actual spinning: gently pulling out the desired amount of fibers to be in the yarn (which determines its diameter). The other part of drafting is which direction, pulling forward or back and the distance between your fiber supply and where and when the twist enters the fiber (which is the point it becomes yarn). In hand spinning true woolen is called "long draw." The spinner is pulling the fiber supply back against the place where the twist grabs the fibers, usually as far as the arm can reach, or longer for great wheels.
Twist: Probably the better way to say it is you let the twist enter the fibers in the "drafting zone" capturing the crazy jumbled up fibers, trapping air inside. This is what makes the yarn light in weight, but so insulating. It's like frothing the milk for your coffee or whipping cream: greater volume, more air and lighter.
Would love any comments. Does this make sense or is the explanation wooly too?
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Ever wondered about why it is so hard to find a true sock yarn without nylon? Although we've only been using nylon in sock yarn since about 1938, it's almost ubiquitous because it increases the durability of the finished item. But not without cost to the environment. Microscopic bits of plastic and nylon are turning up everywhere in our water sources. We wanted to create a durable sock yarn using only wool, which is 100% biodegradable. How hard could that be?