Friday, 25 October 2013

Cleaning, Combing and Hand Spinning Polled Dorset Sheep Fleece

More on the delights of the Spinning Rally weekend in the New Forest at the beginning of September.  In the photo (courtesy of BG), are just a few of the wheels and the legs of the spinning circle.  To the left stands a drum carder, on which I carded my first batt. Centre stage, a mountain of Dorset Poll fleeces.  The campsite was on a farm with these sheep in the next field and we got the chance to buy their wool - it could not have been a more perfect location. 

So, I bought a Polled Dorset fleece in Dorset, with Wrigglefingers' experience to pick a good one. Managed the skirting by myself, but poor Wrigglefingers barely got a mouthful of coffee down her before I was back again, begging for a demonstration of sorting. This fleece arrived home in three bags, about a quarter of it being the best wool from the neck and shoulders, another third the medium quality, the remainder squashed into a binbag.  

The finest section of fleece had a couple of days cold soak in a bucket of water, before a hot wash with Fairy Liquid and three hot rinses.  Once it had dried, I had a new box of locks.  Shorter staples than the Welsh Mountain fleece, but no kemp or discoloration.  Soft, but not superfine or shiny like the Polwarth.  Neutral qualities, not rough, but a bit dry to handle after spinning raw fleece then Polwarth.
In the Fleece and Fibre Sourcebook, Dorset fleeces are well described as having dense 'somewhat crisp or firm' locks. Deb Robson writes 'This is a versatile, moderate wool, amenable to carding or combing'.  I got a beautiful pair of hand combs for my birthday, but have battled to achieve anything like roving, using them on the fleeces I have tried so far. Seeing people combing great puffs of fluff on the Rally was tantalizing.  I retrieved the combs from the dark cupboard of abandoned hopes. 

Washed Dorset Poll fleece proved a revelation. Its dense locks were easy to separate and slide down the tines of the comb.  The other comb is slid through the tips of the locks at a 90 degree angle, pulling the fibres out with successive passes. This time there was no struggling or yanking, the process felt harmonious and restful.  Only the little neps and short fibres were left after each transfer.  Although there is a relatively large amount of waste when compared to carding, the final loaded comb has a smooth bundle of aligned fibres.  
These are pulled off the comb into a sausage, by tugging gently from side to side.  I believe you can use a thing called a diz at this stage, but that refinement will be for another day.  At this point, I was more than happy to draft the roving out a little more between my hands.

Once I had made a nice heap, I could see the combed puffs of tangle, nep and vegetation free fibres were in a different league to my usual raw fleece rolags.  Destined for fine worsted spinning.  Bring out the flags, hooray, I can do it after all. Although I did break the singles quite often at first, the right fibre and the right preparation make a world of difference.  I spun these three beautiful white skeins, about 45g and 120m each, after scouring.  

Plying two singles together gave about 4 ply weight yarn, not even, but definitely thinner than double knitting wool.  Look at the wraps per inch on that! (14!  Fingering weight, at last!)  The yarn is full bodied, but in theory, this worsted ought to drape, rather than bounce like a woolen prep.
In the meantime, I had committed the bag of medium quality wool to the suint vat.  After three rinses, it was not looking good - locks in the middle, between the unwashed and the hot detergent washed samples.  Once dried, it seemed greyish and greasier than when it went in.

The lesson of the day could be that even a mild, sunny September is too cold for suint vats to work.  I think the degreasing process went into reverse. Looks like my vat has festered horribly since I last had a fleece in it at the beginning of August. Could it be the fluid has become overloaded with muck and lanolin?  Over the summer, I picked and skirted and suinted a good few cheap fleeces that turned out to be unusable. No good crying over spilt milk, but I have learned the hard way to check for breaks and weaknesses in the fibres and not to buy fleece with very short staple lengths.

Now for a confession.  In threads regarding the arcana of lovingly hand washing fleece lock by lock, I have noticed the odd, brave soul on Ravelry chipping in with the sort of outrageous comment that is never dignified with a response.  They say things like 'Oh, I just put mine through the washing machine.'   

Surely, I thought, there would just be a big felted lump at the end of a wash cycle?  Tempting, though.  I take little joy in hand washing and have noticed while scouring the yarn that Dorset Polled fleece is not at all inclined to felt.  Sod it, in for a penny in for a pound.  I squashed the low quality portion into a pillow case and put it through the machine wool cycle at 40 degrees - had to be hot enough to get the lanolin out.  Voila - it turned out just as well as the hand washed portion!  

Sadly, the suinted stuff was still weighty with grease, even after two machine washes with lots of Fairy Liquid.  It can be combed, but only by force, not for pleasure.  I guess it is condemned to be compost or slug proofing.  Maybe it could be used for tent insulation on next September's Spinning Rally.


  1. Fran, your experiences with your suint mix look a bit similar to mine. I made the mistake of putting in nearly half of my treasured Maco Merinos fleece (beautifully fine and soft). When it came out it was almost impossible to card, and actually looked dirtier than when it went in. The suint bath seemed to have altered the lanolin and made it sticky. It's now very difficult to get out, even with very hot water and lots of soap. The other half of the fleece cards really well, even without washing (in fact, particularly without washing). Last time I use that - it's going on the garden.

    1. I'm not looking forward to draining that vat, but its got to be done. Ych a fi!

    2. I know what you mean ;-)
      Need a gas mask!

  2. Hi do you know where and when is the spinning rally in new forest this year?
    Can you please give me the addresses in new forest and other places in Dorset to buy fleece to spinn? Thank you so much!

    1. Go on the Ravelry website and find Happy Campers UK group to join various groups planning spinning camps this summer. It seems that fleeces just appear at these do's, some from local farms and some from the people camping who have spares and/or access to their own local sheep.