Friday, 15 August 2014

The Spinner's Book of Fleece - A Review

Best to start by declaring an interest.  No, I don't own shares in Storey Publishing, but they did send me The Spinner's Book of Fleece for free.  A friend of mine read a publicity release, thought this sounded right up my street and suggested I offer to write a review. 
What a nerve, eh?  
I was practically wetting myself when the package arrived last week - what if it was awful?  What if I didn't understand it?
No need to stress.  
How do I love this book?  
Let me count the ways.

First, were Beth Smith ever to visit Wales, I would be thrilled if she popped in for tea. While never irritatingly chumsy, her writing conveys no distant instructor, but a wonderfully well informed fellow enthusiast.  If you share my tendency to rebel against buying an expert manual that dictates correct method to lowly worms, relax.  Betty makes no bones about having 'an abundance of yarns gone wrong'.  In the section 'An Introduction to Hand Scouring' she writes 'Once, I put a whole fleece in the washing machine'. When a woman is prepared to commit that to paper, who would not take heed of her advice on better ways to proceed? 

Above all, this is a book that explains as it teaches.  Fathoming the reasons is so much more memorable than trying to retain the facts.  I had already noticed that fine fleece is hard to scour and easy to ruin, understanding dawned when I read that 'this extra wax helps maintain the separation of the fibers and keeps them from felting right on the sheep.' Did you realise that a two ply yarn shows off lace patterns well 'because it tends to be flat, which helps keep those holes open.'?  Soon, I was nodding and smiling and even putting down my knitting to concentrate harder. Especially in the bit about twist, a subject I have always avoided because it has a terrible look of algebra about it. 

The structure of the book has an internal logic which works best if you read start to finish, rather than dipping.  The options for preparing fibre are not presented one after another, instead, equipment and techniques are expanded upon within the section concerning the type of fleece they suit best.  So, combing and making top comes under Longwools and drumcarding appears with the Down Breeds.  No attempt is made to be exhaustive in categorising every kind of sheep, rather, there is a deep consideration of typical examples.

All Beth's advice on how to spin and ply a consistent yarn is about understanding and using these skills for specific ends, not so the spinner can better imitate those identical balls of soft, mill spun yarn.  While musing on her philosophy, I was interrupted by my own philosophically minded friend.   

"What're you reading?"  Elinor Gotland appeared round the edge of her book.
"Oooh, this brilliant book about how to turn fleece into the best yarn it can be.  No, it's more about how to get to your perfect knitwear by choosing the right fleece, then washing, preparing and spinning it the best way for your ultimate purpose.'
"Spinning teleologically, is it?"
"I don't think Beth Smith has been on the BBC, but she might have been on American telly."
"Teleology, you numpty.  I refer to Greek philosophy, not light entertainment. Every acorn strives to become the perfect oak tree, although absolute perfection is never attained.  You are saying that Beth Smith spins with extrinsic finality, because for her, creating the ideal yarn is contingent upon it realising the optimum end cardigan."
"Deep.  Thought you were more into Greek drama, Euripides and all that."
"The Classics share themes that will enliven my thesis on 'The Trojan Women', you total pleb."
"Hah, bet Ancient Greek plebs sat in the cheap seats at the amphitheatre, ate sweets and enjoyed a good weep over the death of Astynax."
"Mmm, a valid point, though I think the Tragedies were not merely the light entertainment of their time.  I had no idea you had read them."
"I watched a programme about them on telly."

The Spinners' Book of Fleece is a pleasure to handle, solidly bound and beautifully illustrated. Having admired the body work, kicked the tyres and looked under the bonnet, it was time to take it out for a spin.  Actually, a cross country challenge.  I recently acquired a fleece of unknown breed.  The sheep was called Thelma, she and her friend Louise keep down the grass for an old friend of mine.  
It may sound ungrateful, but I would not have picked this one at Wonderwool.  The fibres felt harsh and gritty and looked so yellowed. While unable to follow Betty's philosophy of starting with a project in mind, I could still use her book to help me work out what to do with it.  Tugging the locks showed they were sound with the characteristics of a Down type.

These include a disorganised crimp which is hard to assess, but some locks gave a strong guide toward six crimps per inch.  Examining the pictures of fleece problems, I think that the yellow that washed out was probably yolk and the band that stayed was canary stain, which the book explained will happen when sheep get sweaty and stays permanently on the wool. Part of these staples must have grown during the warm spring we had this year.  The feel was much nicer once clean. Since it seems to be a short stapled Down type, this could be a fleece best carded, but Betty does say to experiment.  I made ten rolags and combed twelve combfulls of tops.
Now to go off road. Following the advice in the book, I did my best to spin this fleece according to its crimp.  Singles ought to end up with six twists to the inch, which means putting in nine, as half are lost in plying.  My 1981 Ashford Traditional Wheel has a fixed ratio of 10:1. One treadle to just over an inch of drafted fibre was much easier to achieve with short
forward draw off the tops than when spinning longdraw off the rolags.  I made three ply with the worsted and two ply with the woolen singles, then washed and fulled the yarn.  The worsted did end up with six plies per inch, the woolen nearer five.

You have no idea how proud I am of this result.  Thanks to Beth, I did maths that worked.  There is much more twist in both samples than I would habitually spin, but I am ready to sacrifice softness for durability, now I understand why the knitwear I have laboured over starts pilling after distressingly little wear. 
In the foreword, Deb Robson recommends this book as a guide to 'embark on the next phase of your own wool journey.'   They may not look much, but these samples are the most consistent yarns I have ever spun. Click the picture for a closer view and you will see their differences better. The contrast in texture and elasticity of the two knitted fabrics has proved to me the truth of Beth's points about the dramatic impact your choice of preparation and spinning technique will make.  One day, I hope to be able to plan all this in advance, but for now, it seems to me that the woolen two ply might suit becoming sturdy car rug, but the crisply defined, stretchy three ply reveals that this fleece is striving to become the perfect cable patterned winter hat.

I reckon The Spinners' Book of Fleece has ushered in my next phase, a desire to shift from beginner spinner to improver.  In my opinion, the SBOF is going to be a classic.  A fitting companion to the great Fleece and Fiber Source Book, if not Plato's Republic.  

ISBN 978-1-61212-039-3 (hardcover : alk paper)
ISBN 978-1-60342-875-0 (ebook) 


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  2. Thanks so much for a great, and hugely entertaining review. So glad you loved test-driving this new book!

  3. Very dedicated study you've done there. I agree, the book is a great cover to cover read as well as resource. I'm inspired by your pics to get organised and do some experiments!

  4. The master spinning wheel maker, Alden Amos, passed away in late November.