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COTTON! (and more)

We’ve had such a good day in and around Natchez and Vidalia. We came for Frogmore Plantation and cotton, but we also saw rice, an armadillo not in a zoo (ok, it was dead on the roadside, but still not in a zoo), mounds created by native peoples of the Mississippi Valley, giant poison ivy, lots of kudzu … such fun. And it was my turn to drive, too.

We began the day at Frogmore, which offers a wonderful tour of an old plantation, reconstructed from original buildings donated by other plantations.  

The tour started in the 1880s steam-powered cotton gin, where hand-picked cotton was processed to separate the seeds and fibre.      

From there we walked to the edge of the cotton field(!) and I picked cotton for the first time. (It’s an Egyptian long-staple, by the way.)

The cotton is sprayed with a defoliant (I think we’d call it a dessicant in the UK) to kill the leaves, which otherwise may stain the cotton during harvest; the modern stainless steel screws that harvest the cotton are less selective than human hands. The edge of the field near the museum was not sprayed and some of the plants are still flowering even though the harvest has begun.

 We walked through the slaves’ quarters, including the wash house, which displayed a cotton wheel – basically a small great wheel – cotton cards, a loom and  quilting equipment and samples. The wheel had all its bits but was fragile and not set up correctly.     

Look at the wear on the treadles, the hand-smoothed polish on the wheel. 

There’s a small lecture room with more information about cotton.

The Café du Monde cooks its beignets in cottonseed oil.

We then drove about a mile east to visit the modern gin, the only on in Louisiana. Perfect timing: they began processing the harvest early this morning. Already bales from other growers are waiting in the field; they’re ginned here, then the clean bales are sent to await buyers in the warehouse in Concordia.   


In a process reminiscent of that I saw at the BWMB Bradford depot, the bales are opened, the cotton pulled off and sucked into the ducts that supply three immense computerised gins.

A waterfall of cotton cascades into a trough  at the front of the machine while a hail of seeds is visible below it. The Tanners, who own the gin, do not charge money for processing cotton: they keep the seeds and the value of the seeds pays for it.


A stream of cotton flows down to the baler, which compacts the cotton and kicks out a bale.


that is tagged and weighed before being trucked down the road to Concordia.
Replete with information, we set off into the farmland north of Frogmore, where we saw the armadillo, rice, cotton, bayous, more cotton before returning to Natchez to visit the Grand Village of the Natchez. The mounds are peaceful in this last week before the school tours start, and we walked the nature trail (giant poison ivy with stems as thick as my wrist, river cane, horsetail 6′ tall, pecan trees…) before returning to the museum where I bought a small but very beautiful woven river cane basket. 

But the cotton is the prize.


P.S. A. says I should clarify the New Orleans cockroach situation: the things on the sidewalk ARE cockroaches, but they’re probably the wild ones known as palmetto bugs that live free in the greenery while their relatives live indoors.


This Friday is for fixed. And for making!

I finished repairing my tabi earlier in the week, and immediately bought a pair of flip-flops to protect the repaired surfaces, because I think they’re beautiful.


I might even Pin(terest) my own work.



The spiralling stitches were much faster to work than the blocks, but that might have been because I wasn’t fiddling about deep inside the sock.

Having repaired them, it was time to think about making my own from the pattern and instructions in John Marshall’s book. More bits of my husband’s old trousers, plus some light white cotton sheeting for lining and heavier white cotton, almost canvas, for the outer soles.


I found kohaze (the fasteners I need) on Etsy(!) and have ordered enough for two pairs of tabi. I’ve been Pinning images of tabi, paying special attention to those with sashiko stitched reinforcement or repair. I will embellish this pair, but have to decide whether the stitching should be done before assembly (far easier) or after (the stitching could be used to add shape to the structure). Decisions, decisions, but I don’t have to decide now. First I have to make muslins, as it were, testing the fit. I’ve cut the external fabric larger than the pattern piece, adding allowances to adjust for a high or low arch. I’ll start by basting to the line of the original pattern, and work from there.

I’ve discovered that this sort of hand-sewing is as safely executed as mindless spinning in the evenings while watching TV (unlike knitting the Orenburg lace scarf, which requires my full attention at all times). So I have another tiny project: to replace the little earbud pouch that A. finds invaluable for storing his keys in his pocket.


It has a sort of flex frame opening: there are two thin strips of metal either side of the opening. Or were; one cut through its pocket and was lost, and the fake leather fabric is disintegrating. Real flex frames have hinges and are supplied with one closed and a pin for the maker to close the other. I’ve made a prototype, adding darts to create more space for the keys. Only minor adjustments are needed – it’s a little too deep, and might benefit from fractionally greater width (longer darts) so I will test the next version in leather. I have leather needles, I have linen thread, I have beeswax. Maybe tonight.

Also, it occurs to me I could mention my previous Blogger blog at

A project for the Cotswold.

The ‘wrong fibre, wrong place’ Cotswold now has ambitions, or more accurately I have an ambitious goal for it. I was whining on Ravelry about lack of desire/inspiration for the 2013 Rampton Project of a Fun and Frivolous Hat when …

(insert wavy lines and flying calendar pages here). 

Some weeks previously Sara Lamb had recommended books by Sheila Paine as of use to someone else; I thought they sounded interesting and worked my way through the travel trilogy (begins with The Afghan Amulet) and then acquired Embroidery from Afghanistan. So naturally I began a search for hatty inspiration by looking for various hats from Afghanistan online. Google images promptly gave me this link, which I posted to Ravelry because one shares the good stuff, right? To cut a long story short, Sara suggested I make a similar hat from fulled handwoven handspun. Good plan, I said, or words to that effect, despite knowing next-to-nothing about how such a thing would be made. An expedition to a local purveyor of New Age crystals and ethnic jewellery proved unexpectedly rewarding: it’s a real one. Well-worn and faded: that pale orange was once fluorescent, and the pale grey-green was screaming lime. 
Close examination shows the embroidery almost completely conceals a blue woven cloth. I think a couple of layers of that are lined with other fabric, then quilted and embroidered. Most of the embroidery stitches are worked within the quilting.
As always, I am moved when my hands feel the work of someone else’s hands. Work, not art: an item made because the maker or someone she cares for truly needs or wants that thing, or the money that can be made by selling it.  
Although I don’t plan my hat to look much like that hat – it’s a man’s hat, to be worn with a turban wrapped around its sides, and sits foolishly on the top of my head – the women’s hats are so ornate that I can’t imagine wearing one. I am inspired instead by this child’s hat. I doubt mine will look much like that, but it’s a starting point. 
To make anything I need cloth, and to make that I need yarn. 
I had about 450g of the sliver, which yielded 171g of singles spun short forward draw. I’ve put 157m to one side in case I want to submit it as part of my work for the Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers Certificate of Achievement in Spinning; that weighs 30g, so the remaining 141g should give me about 740m of warp. But what to use for weft? The combing waste was horrible, full of short cuts and nepps, dirt and dark hairs. I surveyed the stash. Not something precious, not my fine shetlands and other soft wools. And it has to full and/or felt, which ruled out the Dorset Horn and Southdown tops. I was looking thoughtfully at the BFL top when I remembered the Falkland. ‘Falkland’ is the wool clip from the Falkland Islands, originally Corriedale and Romney, now with Polwarth and some merino crosses.  Three minutes with soap and water told me it would full. So I spun a sample from the fold for a more woollen yarn (leave space for the fulled fibres to compact) to roughly the same grist as the warp (it looks thicker in that photo but that’s because it’s woollen). 
I’ve only once made a fulled fabric, and that was a tiny sample spun and woven for Stephenie Gaustad’s ‘Spinning for Historical Reenactment and Museum Replication’ class at SOAR. I needed some idea of what these yarns will do together. How much might the fulled fabric shrink? What sett should I use? I used a straightforward sampling tool, another gift from Sara Lamb. When I say I am fortunate and truly grateful for all that my mentors have given me, I am totally serious. All they ask in return is that I use it: so I do, and I pass the knowledge on.
It’s foamboard covered with graph paper, with pins along the top edge to space the warp. I use the knitting needle at the bottom of the warp as a heddle stick, holding the threads for one pass of the weft for plain weave; I needle-weave the other pass (using a heddle stick and beating with it gives better, denser fabric than needle-weaving alone). It’s faster than you might think. I hemstitched the edges, then hemstitched to isolate 1/3 of the strip to be cut off and kept as a loom-state sample. The other 2/3 I fulled by hand on the kitchen counter this morning.
Although Cotswold will full slightly, the Falklands is much better at it: it’s lost 1cm in width. The strips are oriented in the same way, with that slightly denser band down the same side. I like the fabric, I like it a lot. The overall sett is 34 ends/2″, which is 17 epi. The denser areas have fulled to a tight plain weave; I have to check the loom-state sample/fragment (it’s a very small sample!), but I think that’s nearer 20 epi. If I use size to reduce hairiness and sticking in the warp I think I can achieve that lovely even plain weave fabric on the loom. So this tiny sample has told me a lot: my fibres do what I hoped and I have an approximate sett to make a functional fabric. I might put half the fulled sample through the washing machine to see how much denser it becomes after a normal wash cycle… but then again I may not.
 I don’t know if this fabric will be ideal for the purpose, but I think it will suffice. It’s not so thick and stiff that it will become cardboard when further stiffened by embroidery. It’s soft, but feels hardwearing; I can imagine a winter coat or cloak made of this. It’s fabric of character. I like it. And I’m so proud that I planned it from nothing and I made it real with my own hands.

The wrong fibre in the wrong place at the wrong time

That’s a remarkably vague title, but it’s what unites the two topics of this post. First, some spinning fibre: Cotswold sliver.

It doesn’t look too bad from a distance. Creamy white, reasonably lustrous… feels relatively soft, not harsh. Could be good, but look at it more closely.
There are inconsistencies, curds of shorter, finer fibre. Also, as you can see, sliver is a carded prep, not combed; the fibres are not parallel, they’re interlocked. But this is Cotswold… a long wool. What’s going on?
Above are Cotswold locks, unwashed and washed. Below, fibres pulled from the sliver to check staple length (and therefore more parallel, similar to top, than they were in the sliver itself).
Check the staple length: it is long. (With those embedded tufts of finer, shorter wool just waiting to add … character … to the spun yarn.) I did sample it; I can’t find the sample to show you, but spun with a point-of-contact long draw I assure you it seemed to me a relatively nasty yarn, hard to draft  (the long fibres run through both slubs and twist-locked thinner areas, so the slubs cannot be drafted unless the twist-locked areas are freed). Definitely characterful and not in a good way. The wrong fibre (Cotswold) in the wrong place (a carding machine) at the wrong time (when it was carding).

So. What to do? I could bin it, but 500g = £12 plus postage and I just can’t bring myself to throw the money out. But wait! I don’t have to. Gentlemen, we have the technology. We can rebuild him, er, it. With combs.

The fibres are unsorted, so ignore directionality such as butt and tip. Just lash the sliver on, then comb. In general more passes will give better results, assuming you don’t stress, weaken and snap the fibres. In any fibre prep, watch what you’re doing and if you notice more nepps than when you began, Stop! (And next time, stop before the nepps form.) I don’t think this was wonderful fibre to start with; some of the sliver contains a lot of darker hairs and other areas contain dull, short fibres, so I give it only two passes. I have fleeces more deserving of that processing time.

The photo clearly shows that combing has done a good job of separating the long fibres from the short. Diz off the long fibres and:

there is a nest of roughly-combed top. There are still some nepps in it, but I can live with that. Above the top is the combing waste, composed of second cuts plus shorter, finer fibres from the base of the fleece, plus nepps formed from longer fibres broken in the carding process. In the medieval period combing waste was spun woollen to become weft for relatively low-grade cloth that was finished by fulling and perhaps brushing to raise a nap on the surface. I plan to try that with this waste, but if it’s too nasty, I’ll use some other softer, fullable wool. The top will be the warp yarn for this cloth. It’s not too bad. That sheep was not shorn in vain.

Next, another fibre – or rather, fibres – in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Weaving! Janet Phillips showed me a different way to hold the lease sticks for threading, and I thought I’d share it – and my refinement of it – with you. For my first warps I had the lease sticks on lengths of string running from castle to back beam. I found this awkward, so was pleased to hear about Angel Wings, which attach to the Baby Wolf back beam to hold the lease sticks securely in a fixed position. But I found them awkward, too. The cross was a long way behind the heddles. Janet uses string but ties hers much nearer the castle, bringing the cross much nearer the heddles. I couldn’t find a good, quick way to try her tying method on the Baby Wolf, then realised I didn’t need to: two hooks off the kitchen pot rack would do the job. A loop of thick cord is passed between each end of the lease sticks, then hung from the hook. And, even better, the tube work light I bought for my husband sits across the hooks to shed light on the cross while I’m working. It works really, really well.

(The light is not so ferociously bright as it appears in the photo.) You may notice some strangely yellow heddles in that shot; they’re string heddles, tied to correct a stupid mistake: I miscounted the heddles when setting up to thread. I work from right to left, and the Baby Wolf shafts have a fitting in the middle that prevents heddles sliding across from the left side to the right. I could had pulled all 200-odd threads out, added more heddles, then re-threaded, but why would I want to do that? Far faster to cut some lengths of smooth, shiny mercerised cotton, loop it around the bottom of the shaft, tie two knots to define the heddle eye, then knot the ends loosely around the top of the shaft. Magic! The right fibre (cotton) in the right place (my thrums bag) at the right time (when I need it).

The wrong fibres (remnants of handspun lace yarn in tussah silk, cashmere, camel down) in the wrong place (on a loom) at the wrong time (as an unsized warp). I fear this will end badly, as the soft, blooming ends were catching on each other and causing uneven tension in the warp while I was winding it. I should have sized the warp after winding or, even better, skeined the balls of leftover yarn and sized it before winding the warp. But I was concerned only about the behaviour of the warp while weaving, so planned to size it on the loom. I’ll know better next time. I’ll persevere with this because dealing with the uneven tension will be educational (ha!) and, well. It’s just so pretty…

Passionate Weavers: thoughts on a great weaving weekend

See? I’m keeping my word. Another post, to share my ‘Natural Time Out’ weekend weaving with Janet Phillips, and some of my thoughts about it as I drove home. I’ll spare you the “oh, why aren’t I there yet?” thoughts (four hours on the road is even longer after a long, engrossing weekend).

So. After I returned from the gym on Friday morning I did the dishes, the housework, packed, etc, and started the long drive to Somerset. After three hours of motorway driving at a steady 68mph in deference to the age of my car (the oldest car on the road by a long stretch!) boredom won, and I left the motorway for Chippenham. Southwest for adventure!

Glastonbury Tor in the distance as I drove. Well, as I stopped to take the picture.

I had intended to climb the Tor, but it would have been a rather muddy walk from the car park in the centre of Glastonbury and I was trying to keep my shoes clean, so I settled for a wander around town –  right back to the early 1970s, complete with the same incense! – and a visit to the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. I was thinking about pattern and colour as well as history:

Lines and blocks: arches in the ruins
Medieval encaustic tiles, a remnant of the medieval Abbey floor.
The Abbey did not have the atmosphere I’d expected for such a famous centre of mysticism, possibly because it is so thoroughly steeped in patchouli. Crowland Abbey and Rievaulx both made much deeper and longer-lasting impressions on me. Anyway, from Glastonbury it’s a straightforward drive to Nether Stowey. Past orchards (Somerset is famous for cider), and some very muddy sheep. I conveniently found the two together here; note the mistletoe on the apple trees. I suspect these are rams; one was definitely Texel, but the others turned their backs on me almost as I clicked the shutter.
I checked into the Rose and Crown (Be warned, mobile reception is almost non-existent in the village. They do have wifi in the bar, but you have to ask.) and the next morning after breakfast I walked up the hill to the remains of Nether Stowey Castle in search of phone signal. 
From the top of the Castle mound or motte looking south over the foundations of the keep to the Quantocks beyond.
And the view north over the village, with the cooling towers of Hinckley Point visible in the distance.
And then it was weaving. I took full advantage of the fact I was Janet’s only student on Saturday and Sunday (Tina arrived on Monday, and Amanda on Tuesday). I’d brought samples of my weaving to date, and Janet seemed genuinely impressed by what I’d achieved, particularly with handspun singles. I then laid out one of my favourite problems, an assortment of yarns I’d bought with a view to weaving fabric for a vest or other garment. 
I’d chosen colours to complement some Blue Moon Fiber Arts silk thread, but even with the added lustre of the silk as weft (I don’t want horizontal stripes in a garment!) wraps to test warp stripes looked like school uniform fabric. Uninspiring.
I’d thought of adding 60/2 silk in toning or contrasting colours to enliven the warp (sample wrap on left) and it seemed to work, but I wasn’t sure how best to do this in a fabric, or whether differential shrinkage would lead to the silk popping out of the wool after washing. Janet said “sample”, just like every other experienced weaver of my acquaintance – but this time I had to do as I was told. As I’d asked to wind a warp and warp my own loom because I’d learned what I knew from books and YouTube, I was guided through the process of winding a warp for a ‘Colour and Weave Effect’ sampler from the yarns I’d brought. Including 60/2 silk where I thought it useful. Beaming is so. much. easier. with someone to reassure me from time to time! Wind on with sticks to start with, then sections of vinyl flooring; I will have to try this again, as it was extremely easy to work with and, although using rough paper for the ‘tooth’ to hold yarns tightly makes sense, so does using a smooth surface to prevent damage to the yarn and ensure that a badly wound section can be improved by subsequent tight winding. I stayed late to finish the threading only to find I had two spare heddles. A quick check showed that the error, whatever it was, was near the beginning. I left, resolving to come in early to find and correct the error. The morning light revealed I was two ends short of one colour; I left two heddles for the ends and rethreaded the warp in record time. (I was almost genuinely pleased to have the threading practice. Almost.) I couldn’t have picked a better mistake to make at this stage, as Janet was able to show me how to add warp threads when needed. So easy! Then tie on, weave a header to check threading and tension (take up slack if necessary) and I was away. 
I used the Ashford 4-shaft table loom at back left, with a stick shuttle. On the dresser at right are cones of yarn and bins of samples, which Janet referred to almost constantly to answer questions or inspire thoughts. 
The sampler on the loom at 28epi. Note the subtle shifts of colour in the warp where silk threads are modifying the dull purple and gold.

Weaving. 0900–1600, every day for the next three days. With breaks for lunch, for quick lessons on the principles of weave design, to admire each others weaving, but still almost all weaving, almost all the time. It was WONDERFUL!

I fell in love with shadow weave. So I had a lesson on how both yarn colour and weave structure can be used to create a change in direction when and where required. And I brought home something to remind me that I want to do this, too.

Hard work, but full of wonders, of little flashes of enlightenment and inspiration. And laughter! We’re all concerned that Janet’s website photo makes her look entirely too stern :-) Tuesday pm came too soon, but we’ll all try to keep in touch and meet at Janet’s again.

I arrived home with tangible inspiration: a sampler. Four feet of sampler, including a host of patterns all woven on a straight twill threading. Not yet washed, but Janet’s class work with this particular yarn, a tightly spun worsted 2-ply, indicates it will not full and shrinks very little, even when machine washed (on a wool setting). So I will finish this properly once it’s hemmed and I’ve done something about the ends where I’ve tied in new warp to change some colours, but I am reasonably confident that – with this yarn – shrinkage of the wool won’t cause the silk to buckle.

The sampler and the process of weaving it has answered many other questions. 
Not only do I have more confidence winding and beaming a warp (and correcting mistakes!), I know how adding silk thread to the warp will work, and what it adds to the fabric. I know that the silk I planned to use for weft wouldn’t work as I thought. I can make a beautiful fabric without it, just by adding silk thread. I have some idea of the best way to add the silk to both warp and weft.

And I totally love what I made.

If you’ve survived reading this far, here are the thoughts I promised. I am extraordinarily fortunate to have been taught by three amazing weavers, Sara Lamb, Stephenie Gaustad, and Janet Phillips, each of whom has a different style of teaching and seems to be interested in different aspects of the craft of weaving. And yet, driving home, I found myself thinking about what unites them in my mind: their passion for weaving, their love of weaving, and their drive, their deep desire to convey this passion to their students. To me it’s this last that defines the very best teachers, because how can we, their students, fail to respond to such a gift?

I will thank them with the work of my hands. I will weave.

Hullo again!

It’s been a while, I know. I began a draft post last summer to tell you about Paradise Mill and the Silk Heritage Museums, in Macclesfield, but was distracted. But of late I’ve been thinking I should be doing more to document my fibre work, particularly my weaving, and this would be a good place to do that. I’d like to – I need to – acquire the habit of keeping records, and this is a good way to start. Also, I enjoy sharing my successes and, even more important, my failures.

In earnest of my good intentions, here’s some spinning I just finished. The story begins sometime in 2010, when I told a friend about de-hairing and de-wooling North Ronaldsay fleece to get 2gms of the fine, soft down that lurks at the base of the fleece. She mentioned that while grooming her goat (known as Goat) she’d found a much higher percentage of goat down than usual in the comb-fuls of hair, and asked if I’d be interested. Of course I said yes.

Why did I say “YES!”? Because I learned from Robin Russo that, while cashmere comes from goats, there is no such thing as a Cashmere Goat. Any goat down of sufficient fineness can legitimately be classed as cashmere. And of course, I was curious.

So in due course a bag of Goat down plus hair arrived in the post. It smelled a bit of Goat (who is, after all, a goat), so I washed it. Exceedingly carefully. The end result looked a bit like this, but browner, cleaner and with a little less hair:

Raw (unwashed) cashmere, exactly as it comes from the goat (not Goat, in this case).

I put it in a plastic bag and put that in the kitchen with a pair of tweezers and another empty bag beside it. And for two years, every now and then, I spent 5–20 minutes standing over the kitchen sink (where the light is good), pulling hair out of down with the tweezers. It was really, really boring work, which is why it happened only now and then. Nonetheless I finished in November, 2012 or thereabouts.

I have no picture of the tiny finished pile of down, but I did think to take a picture of the punis it became. The darker ones are from a smaller sample of de-haired goat down sent to me by Baydancer of Ravelry fame.

The singles were spun on my Majacraft Suzie Pro, using the lace flyer and fat bobbin.

My goal was a relatively hard-wearing yarn that would nonetheless bloom. I’m reasonably happy with this; I suspect the singles are slightly over-twisted but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. (Or rather, the proof of the spinning will be in the wearing.) There isn’t an awful lot of it despite my spinning quite thin, so I decided to ply it against silk, Orenburg-style. I am extremely lucky; at SOAR 2009, Michael Cook gave me 2 bobbins of hand-reeled silk (I’d helped him clear his teaching room).

This silk still contains sericin, the glue that bonds the strands of silk together to form a cocoon. To de-gum it requires washing soda and heat, which would be arrant cruelty to my Goat cashmere-equivalent. So I wound off 15′ as a sample skein to test my degumming; it worked, but without any twist at all, I had great difficulty unwinding it to ply. So I spent a happy hour spinning several hundred meters of the reeled silk onto a bobbin at high speed, adding just enough twist to hold what would be a singles together, before bringing about 1tsp washing soda in 1litre water to the boil to dissolve, then reducing to a slow simmer before adding a few drops of Fairy and my extremely well-tied skein of silk and simmering for about 25 minutes. Rinse several times, acidulating the last rinse with vinegar to neutralise any traces of washing soda. The end result is VERY pretty.

The silk went on the skein winder, the bobbin of Goat cashmere on the kate and I was away, debating precisely how much plying twist I wanted. My dim memory of real Orenburg yarn was of relatively loose plying; this is my yarn and I prefer something that holds together while I knit it. I hate picking up only one ply.

On the bobbin, to the left is Goat+silk, to the right is Baydancer’s goat+silk. Despite trying to spin all punis to the same grist, Goat’s down is finer and silkier, so thinner and more even.

The end result is, I have to say, gorgeous.

I love it dearly. I’ve got just under 300m. It is of course coarser than true Orenburg yarn, but I’ll make a sample Four Seasons Orenburg scarf to test my theory of yarn design. I’ll modify the twist if necessary (the plied skein was very lightly weighted as it dried, to straighten some pigtails. After all, lace will be blocked.) and then I have an entire bag of Lesley Prior’s English Cashmere that needs no de-hairing!

And in weaving news:
I want to weave my handspun, but I can weave faster than I can spin, especially as I can’t stop knitting lace as well. So I’m alternating handspun and millspun projects, which means the next one is handspun, or largely so.

With the exception of the grey skein at right, and the large ball of multi-coloured wool below it (two prospective wefts), the rest of this is warp. Only the skein and ball at top left are millspun; the rest are laceweight shawl leftovers, all a bit darker than they appear here. All are no less than 50% silk, which I hope will reduce the intensity of seer suckering (the puckering that can occur if the warp (or the weft, for that matter) contains yarns that shrink differently on finishing. I’m winding the warp slowly, often combining two very thin yarns, or one very thin and a thicker, just to see what happens. Here are the first 120 ends:

I think I might have something over 360, to be set (sucks teeth and thinks) about 25epi for plain weave, maybe 28 for a twill. I will thread for the twill but might weave it plain if the pattern doesn’t work. Weft is difficult. After winding the first 120 ends, I decided the two candidates in the photo are out. Current leader is a mess (literally) of 20/2 silk I massacred in the dregs of an indigo vat a couple of years ago. I might want it greyer; if so, I have the technology (black and brown dye, vinegar and heat).

There, not only a post, but a longish one with pictures. I wish I’d taken my camera to London on Saturday so I could tell the tale of the Neckinger, but maybe I can persuade my husband to walk it again on a warmer day.

p.s. I’ll try to remember to disinter my photos from Macclesfield for another post. In the interim, if you’re near enough, go and visit yourself! After all, Macclesfield is the western end of the Silk Road. Is that not amazing?

A Bradford Adventure part II: the Haworth Scouring and Combing Company

At the end of the Depot tour we handed back the hi-viz vests, piled into the vans and headed at some speed (we were running late) for the Haworth Scouring Plant, itself once a cashmere processing plant, passing other disused cashmere processing plants and discussing the sad, rapid decline of the industrial north. We parked outside a nondescript building, with odd scraps of fleece on the ground suggesting there was wool-processing nearby. A gate opened to reveal even more fleece on the ground:

We walked between bales of UK fleece in orange wrappers, Irish fleece in yellow wrappers, fleece from the Mediterranean in sacking and from Norway in white plastic (fleece from overseas is certified free of disease before importation), all waiting for imminent processing. LOTS of fleece in the queue to be processed and a warehouse full of bales waiting their place in the queue. And this shows why The Campaign for Wool is an international campaign: many countries produce wool and many produce much more than the UK does. Even if a purely British campaign managed to increase the price paid for wool in Britain, the UK market would be flooded by wool from elsewhere. And, after all, most of the UK clip does go into carpets, not garments sold on the high street. So The Campaign for Wool is working to increase the profile of all wool, to publicise the value of all wool everywhere because (as someone said at Bradford) “A rising tide floats all boats”: raise the price everywhere and producers everywhere will benefit. Anyway, back to the tour. All the wool outside will come here:

Strapping and wrapping is removed from the bale and it’s fed to the Big Green Machine on the left, which begins the process of opening the fleeces for processing. Cotted fleece (a separate grade at the Depot) goes first to the machine on the right, known as the Piranha, to be ripped open more… forcefully. The ducting from the Piranha feeds into the Green Machine, and from there all the fleece is blown through into the next room.

From this point my photos cannot do justice to the plant, let alone Martin’s enthusiasm as he showed us through it! Everything is just Too Big. There are two processing lines; the huge bins to each side of us as we walk into the works contain fleece being further opened as it moves toward the washing line. If you click for bigger on the photo above, you can see a set of steps; we climbed those and then a second set to get to the point where fleece emerges ready for washing. Now, in addition to the noise and the smell of industrial quantities of wet fleece (not as pleasant as my one fleece in my kitchen), we encounter steam and heat, which is why the camera lens is fogging. My camera does have a hard life, poor thing

Here the fleece is about to be fed into the first ‘bowl,’ as the washing containers are called. It’s a misleading name, they’re actually huge tanks. Water temperature and other aspects of the line are computer-controlled so that different types of fleece can be handled with varying degrees of delicacy. The first bowl is the hottest, running without detergent at 70°C at the time of our visit, which combined with my camera temperature to yield only wonderful pictures of lens fog.

Above is one of the bowls a little further down the line (there are 8 in total); the line is moving from right to left. To give you some idea of scale, I’d guess the roller pressing excess moisture out of the fleece is 5–6′ wide. We peered into the inspection hatch and saw a mechanism that looked much like rows of wide-spaced fingers propelling the fleece through the water. I didn’t think to ask how much water the plant uses, but I did ask if they had difficulties meeting environmental quality regulations, and was told no, that Haworth has its own in-house water quality laboratory, bought lock, stock, barrel and specialist when another firm went under (we saw the lab later in the main building). Also, as later became clear, the dirt in the water is in fact money, so they want it out: there’s truth in the saying “Where there’s muck there’s brass.”

Here Martin is holding a handful of clean fleece. And it is clean: Haworth takes residual fatty matter down to 0.2–0.3% by weight, whereas some fleece processed in China is at 4%.

And then the driers. This perhaps gives the best idea of the length of the processing lines (there’s Tim Booth of the BWMB standing at the end of the washing area, taking a photo of me taking a photo).

After the driers, a visual inspection to remove anything untoward, followed by magnets to remove anything metallic that might damage the processing equipment.

Now this was rather cool. Or rather warm, in fact. Haworth takes as much care as the BWMB to ensure uniformity in its bales. Here the dried fleece is blown in horizontal layers to fill a container roughly the size of a semi-trailer. Once it’s full they unload it from the front in vertical layers, blowing it to their own baling setup:

They’re very proud of their washing plant: these bales, which look just as clean as any other fleece we saw at this stage, are in fact sweepings off the road we walked down.

And here’s part of the store of clean fleece ready for further processing. The gold bales on the left are fleece from the best of British, which they hope to promote for the Olympics; the blue is their ‘ordinary’ and the unwrapped bales go straight to their own processing plant across the yard. So we walked across the yard

where we had a fine view of the set-up to reclaim lanolin and other waste products from the wash water. The lanolin is shipped out in those black ex-orange juice barrels for a variety of purposes. The soil/muck is used in soil reclamation projects, as it’s rich in plant nutrients.

Are you bored yet? We weren’t. We were excited!

To the left you can just see part of the machine that opens the bales of washed fleece and anything else – tag ends of roving and so forth – ready for the drum carders. Those BIG green things on the right are industrial drum carders. Didn’t look like much at this end, but

LOOK! spinning fibre! There was a swirl of excited laughter and everyone who spins tried to take meaningful pictures. Basically the sheet of fibre (it’s at least 6′ wide) is fed off the last drum and laid down into the big white bin. I couldn’t count the big bins of fibre visible in this space, and I was so overwhelmed I forgot to even try to take a picture of them. Basically it’s a giant space full of fibre like this:

Some of the roving is fed into combing machines, like this one:

And the end result is fed into even more big bins, then weighed out into 10kg bumps.

And here’s the thing. Each of those bumps will cost you £4.50 – if you buy 10,000kg or more. That’s not a lot of money, really, for what they are. I look at that bump and imagine sheep cared for by farmers across the world, sheared and graded by a diversity of shearers, passed from hand to truck to be shipped to the UK and … here it is for us to admire and manufacturers to purchase: wool. It’s a wonder-ful fibre. Wear it with pride!

And finally, yet more fibre. Upstairs, above the offices, past the lab, we found a room of wool.

It’s the home of the Real Shetland Company! British breed fibres! Yarn! I wish we could have stayed longer… I didn’t really need to eat lunch.

If you enjoyed this, Lesley’s blog here gives an overview of our Big Day Out with some of the facts and figures I can’t read in my notes…

And now a different but related plea. You may have read about Wovember, the campaign to celebrate the fact that real wool comes from real sheep. If not, please take the time to read that link, and Kate’s ‘woolly thinking’ blog posts about how sloppy or actively misleading advertising may mean people buy not-wool when they thought they were buying wool. Take care to read the labels on garments you’re thinking of buying and, if you feel bold, mention your concerns to someone in the shop. Hand on heart, I have sworn to do this myself.

A Bradford Adventure I: the BWMB and the North of England Wools Depot

It’s been a long time. I have excuses and reasons, primarily that I began blogging to record my adventures in fibre, but it turned into a way to record walks and hikes and my interest in the history of the British landscape and the people who live in it. Sadly we’ve had fewer walks this year and so I spent my time outdoors enjoying being outdoors rather than documenting the experience. The same with SOAR this year: even if it’s a tiny digital camera lens, it distances the photographer from the experience and I wanted to live in the moment, rather than objectively recording it.

I had such a good day out yesterday that I’ve been inspired to blog about it.  Wearing her Campaign For Wool hat, some months ago Lesley Prior asked for artisan wool-worker volunteers to train as speakers for the Campaign. I volunteered, and on Monday afternoon Alison of Yarnscape and I drove up to Bradford for the British Wool Marketing Board (hereafter BWMB)/Campaign for Wool Artisan Training Day. No photos of the journey, as I was driving and it was dark and I was navigating from memorised info to a place I’ve never been before. The Campanile Hotel on the Euroway Estate was clean and cheap, but I doubt anyone enjoyed the entertainment provided by a brief fire alarm at 0226 on Tuesday morning. Although the rather cheeky letter slipped under the door pointing out that we should be reassured, as it proved the alarm system was working properly made me chuckle. Very briefly.

Conveniently, the Campanile is virtually next door to the BWMB Wool House offices, where by 0930 roughly 13 of us had assembled for a brief coffee in a room displaying some of the best of British wool. OK, 70% of UK wool is used in carpets (and I can now tell you why, in possibly exhausting detail), but the yarns and woven goods were much more immediately interesting to handspinners and weavers. The swatches from Ardanalish Isle of Mull Weavers were lovely enough to make me wonder whether I could wear tweed with aplomb (I’ll probably settle for not looking silly). The BWMB website is full of information (if perhaps less than inviting to casual visitors), but the people are warm and welcoming, funny and absolutely passionate about British wool. We were well-met and well-matched!
Everyone piled into mini-vans and headed for the North of England Wools Depot. We didn’t have time to appreciate the size of the building until we were in it, donning our hi-vis vests. It’s immense. It has to be: 90% of the wool clip arrives between June and September, but it’s held, graded at the rate of 150,000kg/165 US tons per week and released to market gradually throughout the year to ensure the price remains relatively level, which benefits both producers and purchasers in the long term. If my scribbled notes are accurate, the Depot is currently holding 700-800,000kgs of wool (that’s 772-882 US tons), and the same again is stored at Carlisle waiting for grading. To put that in better perspective, total UK wool production in 2010 was 28 million kg, about 31,000 US tons… and that’s about 3% of world production. And THAT is why The Campaign For Wool is an international campaign… but more of that in another post.

The white mattress-like things at left are ‘sheets’ full of ungraded wool. The BWMB supply the sheets, producers fill them for collection or deliver them to intermediate centres, which compact them for efficient transport before the BWMB trucks bring them to the depot for grading. The orange plastic bales each contain c. 400kg of graded wool… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Above, an overview of the grading area. To the right is a sheet of fleece hanging above the table on which the grader (chap in the white shirt) is working.

The grading area in more detail. You can see the frames holding individual wool sheets, the tables and the graders working. It takes 5 years to train as a grader: they grab a fleece, classify it by breed, assess it according to the grades for that breed (the grades vary from breed to breed), then throw it into the appropriate skep (bin), all in a lot less than 30 seconds/fleece. It’s important to note that they’re not looking for the same things as a handspinner, because industrial wool producers aren’t handspinners. Fineness, presence or absence of coloured fibres and kemp, dirt content (dirty fleece is termed ‘arable’ and worth much less than clean because it loses so much weight in processing) are much more significant than breed, for example. Skeps of graded fleece are weighed on the floor scale visible behind our guide, Chris, then wheeled into the queues for the bale compactors. Fearsome beasts these, and unsurprisingly noisy.

With apologies for the disembodied heads… Chris is very proud indeed of their new double compactor, which is faster and more efficient than the old single compactor. You may just be able to see that full skeps are being tipped onto a conveyor belt feeding them into a vertical shaft; when the shaft is full, a ram compresses the shaft-full to about 1/3 height, a relatively small package…

(This is a freshly-compacted bale on the single compactor), the plastic wrappers are pulled down, and wire links used to tie the bale. Then the ram rises and the fleeces exhibit the famous springiness of English wool as they try to rise to their original bulk! They’re then stacked with others of their grade.

Note the circular hole visible in some bales. This is the sign that they’ve been sampled:

This machine takes core samples (you can see a scatter of circular patches on the floor) from bales to assess uniformity of fibre quality, dirt content, grease content, and here my notes are indecipherable due to cramp – it’s a long, long time since I took notes by hand like this! The bales are stored here until they’re sold at auction, and can be held free of charge for up to four weeks after purchase; longer storage is chargeable. Over 70% of the wool goes overseas for processing and manufacture; currently demand is high in China, 15 container-loads per week, which is why wool prices are rising. Which is why the amount of wool produced each year in the UK is rising: good news after decades of decline. This year they’re expecting 29 million kgs and, if demand continues at this level, they hope for >30 million kgs in the near future.

Along with facts and figures we had time for many other questions. For example, they don’t have any problem with moth, probably because it’s too cold and the wool is passing through relatively quickly. The bales sit longer, but they are largely protected by plastic and are so dense that moth larvae could make little impact anywhere but the surface. In case you’re wondering, they’re very pleased with the quality of the finish of their new concrete floor, but by the end of the processing season the lanolin leaves it as slippery as a dance floor, so they have to have it thoroughly cleaned for safety reasons. The graders no longer succumb to Wool Sorters’ Disease aka anthrax, and a detailed medical study shows they’re in no danger from pesticides used on fleece.

To finish, here’s a poor photo of a North of England Wools truck.

 Although it’s clearly promoting British Wool, the trucks are not always loaded with fleece – for maximum efficiency, they take haulage contracts for other goods when travelling to the depots to collect fleece. So when you see one of these trucks it might be full of tiles, but they’re still advertising British Wool. I like that.

Stay tuned for Part II, the delightful Martin Curtis and his Haworth Scouring Company!

The Workshop

Bast Fibres, sorry, Fibres. We were the noisy ones, so noisy that Jacey came to find out what we were doing. Several times. Sometimes we were pounding fibres – the flax strick needed only hackling to be ready to spin, but pounding the finished skeins with the beautiful wooden mallet on a chunk of the tree that fell on the studio softens and polishes the yarn.

Sometimes we were singing. But most of the time we were laughing. Monday and Tuesday AM were flax; on Tuesday we braved the storm (there was a tornado warning!) to boil our skeins. The Event Organisers were not completely happy allowing us to play with matches, but we did not burn the place down (we did borrow Jacey’s sign to use as a windbreak, though).

Tuesday pm was hemp, retted strick and decorticated top. Some of our handspun became rope: 12 singles became 3 strands became one thin but incredibly strong cord.
The singles are twisted into strands

The strands are twisted into rope

We spun on Balkan spindles, which have two whorls to contain the unruly flax singles; when the whorlsnare
removed ( they slide off), the spindle is used as a weaving shuttle.

We learned about other bast fibres: we spun ramie, we pounded soaked ganpi until what seemed was thick white fibre opened into the most amazing mesh

We showed our work at The Workshop Showcase on Wed evening; not the most packed or
most colourful table, but again we were noisy – we demonstrated pounded ganpi and flax ( as quietly as we could), and we, ah, encouraged people to come and watch our rope-making.

— Post From My iPhone

Monday is Flax Day One

And no photos on my phone, only on the camera and no way to transfer them here. In short: Stephenie summarised the characteristics of bast fibres as a group, talked about the cultivation of flax (including the story of an abortive DEA raid on one of her 4′ by 8′ flax plots (lush, green, what else could it be? Flax???). And then we learned about prep. Retting, rippling, breaking, scutching, hackling. Dressing a distaff or, in our case, broomstick (housekeeping was bemused). Spinning tow and line, dry and wet. My first attempt was Terrible, as I fought to overcome the longdraw habit. My second was marginally better. After dinner I returned to hackle and spin a third skein. Much better. Practice makes perfect and we’ve got flax again this morning. The rain and wind (tornado alert at 0630!) may delay the boiling of our skeins, but that gives us more time to spin.

— Post From My iPhone