Friday, 27 September 2013

Hand Spinning Welsh Mountain Sheep Fleece

Welsh Mountain sheep take a battering.  I think of them like King Lear, out on the blasted heath, where the stunted trees grow sideways. Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow! You cataracts and hurricanoes spout Til you have drenched our fleece.  No-one would expect to spin a lacey shawl with it.  

The Fleece and Fibre Sourcebook tells me all the Welsh sheep breeds have coarser wool, with fibres measuring 32 to 40 microns wide.  Kemp is more like human hair, mixed in with the wool fibres.  Deb Robson found abundant kemp in the South Wales Mountain sample she spun while researching the book.  She comments that it suggests great weather resistance.  Kemp also makes spun wool more prickly.  I found a fair bit in the one I have been working on.

On the left are locks of a Welsh Crossbreed fleece from a local farm.  A friend at work very kindly asked her brother if he would bag up a fleece for me to buy.  My struggle to clean the Suffolk fleece from another nearby farm (pictured centre bottom), introduced me to the marvels of suint.  Still, I was truly delighted when I unrolled this one in the carpark, quick bit of skirting and it was fit to come indoors.  The staple length is variable, 5 - 12 cm, the locks are easy to open with a nice crimp.  I can't measure the fibre diameter, but recently, I was given a piece of Polwarth fleece, sample shown on the right.  The book says this breed has fibre 21 to 26 microns wide.  Although the photo doesn't really convey its silky fineness, I can tell you that smoothing Polwarth into locks is a luxury in itself. The contrast brought home to me how much tougher the Welsh breeds must be, contending with the fretful elements. The farmers too, I'd guess.

A plan to spin a cable jumper from the Suffolk fleece foundered, when I knitted up a swatch of hand spun and realised how stiff and harsh the fabric would be.  Welsh Crossbreed spinning will be durable, should take years of hard wear.  When a washed swatch of this turned out considerably softer and less yellowed, the cable jumper plan was back on.  I learned the hard way about planning, - Oh I have ta'en Too little care of this. Decided to Take physic, Pomp, after making such hard work of the first hand spun jumper.  

So, I had a careful think about how to prepare this fleece.  Seeing as how I want to make a working jumper, rather than an item of beauty, no need to spin a fine thread.  Not much confidence I could manage that anyway.  As it goes, earlier this month, I was very much encouraged by lots of help and patient support from experienced spinners on a spinning rally weekend.  
Poor women, more spinned against than spinning, with me at their wheels and drum carders.  They were quite right, with careful  preparation, any fleece can be spun finely, well, at less than double knitting weight.  Both the skeins above were spun from raw fleece and are shown in all their grubby glory.  To get the finer one, which I made this week for sewing up the seams, I made proper rolags on hand carders.  
However, hand carding takes more time and effort than my chunky spinning needs.   For this fleece, I improvised a kind of 'fauxlag', by laying out locks along my thigh.  I used a dog brush to flick out the dirt from the tips and separate out the fibres on each side, turned the strip over, did the other side and rolled it up into a sausage.  

Still takes time, but this method gives a big portion of fibre per fauxlag.  Not as easy to control the drafting as it is spinning from proper rolags, but good enough.  I wanted a woolen rather than a worsted type yarn, as warmth is more important than drape or even a crisp look to the cable pattern on this jumper.  Plus I am still crap at worsted spinning.

The wheel is come full circle.  More twist per inch makes yarn less soft, but stronger.  I ended up treadling at a medium pace on the 15/1 ratio on the flyer to get a sturdy feel.  The fineness of yarn is measured in wraps per inch (wpi).  I tried drafting more or less fibre into my singles, plying two together and checking the wpi of the resulting yarn.  

Three ply makes a strong, round yarn, but the singles need to be finer and the result is less flexible.  Although my singles don't look very thick when I am spinning, they puff up a lot when the plied yarn is washed. Two ply is less work and more elastic. 

Meanwhile, I had found my original choice of pattern was too full of complicated stitch panels to modify.  Oh, that way madness lies; let me shun that. The cable jumper in Men's Knits looked a much better option.  I got the wpi right for the tension gauge stated, only to find that my sample of knitting shrank 13% in length and got 5% wider after a machine wool wash at 30 degrees.  No good making a working jumper that can't go through the wash.  

An old jumper, which fits just right, was used as my model. To avoid making a crop top with three quarter length sleeves, I calculated all the length measurements proportionately longer.  Since I was in remedial maths at school, this was nerve wracking knitting.  The washing machine shall unfold, what plaited cunning hides. The body did get shorter and wider, but the sleeves were still too long. It dawned on me that I had measured the old jumper along the inside sleeve seam, but measured my knitting along the cable column, which, as any fool can see, is not on the same increasing angle.  Howl, howl, howl, howl!  If I unpick the seams, frogging the upper sleeves could be difficult now they have got a bit felted in the wash.  If I managed to do that and knitted them up shorter, when I wash again, they may well end up at a different tension to the rest of the jumper.  She that has and a little tiny wit, With hey, ho, the wind and the rain, Must make content when the jumper doesn't fit, For the rain it raineth every day.

I do blame the weather for another flaw.  Last year's heavy rain caused yellow discolouration of parts of this fleece.  I thought if I mixed in the yellower staples with paler ones, I should end up with a general mottled effect.  As you see, that didn't work out either. Nicotine type stripes. 
Hysterica passio, down thou climbing sorrow.

This evening, I feel much happier. Took the jumper round to the mastermind of walls, digger of deepest footings, undaunted raker of the concrete flood.  With the cuffs turned up, it fits pretty well. Strictly toolshed, but since it kept a Welsh Mountain sheep weatherproof through the snows, it ought to be warm this winter. The worst returns to laughter.


  1. I really enjoyed reading this....and it your hard work and devotion to your project is so lovely to see. great stuff Fran

    1. Glad you liked it - I sometimes wonder how daft I sound - thinking out loud.

  2. Looks good to me and I'd wear it.

  3. Very informative piece, entertainingly written! Well done for going through the whole process with a tougher than often fleece - inspirational!

  4. I'm fairly new to hand spinning and reading you news/saga of your jumpers was inspiring. No longer will I hide my jumpers only to be worn at home. I will sally forth with pride. Thank you. Jennifer from Cornwall

  5. It is brilliant to hear from other spinners, thanks very much for your comments.