Thursday, July 23, 2015

Book Review: The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook

There are a few things that every spinner should have on his or her book shelf. A book of spun samples. How to spin various kinds of yarns. And a book like this which introduces you to the wide world of fibers. The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook primarily deals with an introductory, though mostly comprehensive, look at sheep wools. The sections at the end of the book discuss non-sheep fibers in a similar vein, those from goats, camelids, rabbits, and such. I am fairly well-versed in a few types of wool that I have used extensively over the years, but even I learned a few new things about those fibers from reading this book.

Most reference books aren't exciting to read (well, in a way they are), but I really found this book to be a page-turner. The first chapter introduces various useful terms, disambiguated the commercial world of wool from the that of the handspinner, and gave a quick zoological lesson about wool and the animals who make it. It is fully colorized, so each page has a picture of something, whether it's the raw/washed locks, sample swatches, and/or a picture of the cutie pie sheepies themselves. This is incredibly useful as we can associate the wool to the image of the breed of sheep (when applicable--not all breeds listed will have images of both animal and lock). It is nice to see how the samples turn out when you start with the raw lock.

The general format for each sheep breed is a blurb about the history of that breed, along with some interesting tidbits specific to that breed. There is information about fleece weight, fiber micron, dyeability, suggested spinning techniques, and advice about knitting/crocheting/weaving/felting. On occasion, there is an interesting story about a sheep or wool. For example, in the entry about Merino sheep, there is a cute story about the famous Shrek the Sheep.

The book starts off with the sheep breeds, which is primarily organized by sheep families. There are many sheep which don't fall into these categories, but may still have similar fleece qualities. Knowing the families of sheep will be useful in a plethora of ways as you educate yourself about how the different wools relate to one another. 

When the book turns to other wool-producing animals, more than 2/3 of the way through the book, there is a mini introduction for that specific type of animal, whether its goats, camelids, or rabbits. Though these sections aren't as vast as the sheep section, there is a great deal of information here too (there just typically aren't as many breeds of angora as there are sheep, I suppose). 

The Sourcebook is meant to be a quick reference since it doesn't delve into each breed for several pages--most will only have a dedicated 2-3 pages, some more, some far less. It makes up for depth with its breadth. It's a great starting point for your fiber study, and if you have only worked with a few handfuls of fibers, this reference book will be a boon companion.

My only criticism about this book is the lack of quick reference. There is a typical index in the back of the book, but it's time consuming to thumb through at a glance because it lists more than just the breed names. The table of contents is also difficult to search through if you don't immediately know how a fiber is categorized. I'll probably make a hand-written quick reference version so I can find a breed alphabetically instead.

For the price ($35 USD), it is a steal. You'll still need to experiment with fleeces on your own and build up your personal reference, but it's good to have on your shelf. Whether you're just getting started with spinning, need a refresher about a specific breed, or you need to identify some mystery wool, this book will be comprehensive enough for your needs. 

Sunday, July 19, 2015

What do I know about Suffolk?

Well, not as much as I'd like. One way to get to know a wool is to work with it from raw lock to finished swatch. My only experience with Suffolk before now was in a combed top preparation, but as I have learned, that will only tell you so much about a wool. To really understand what a particular breed of wool can be, you need to start with an individual's raw fleece (or part of a fleece). I bought 100g of various wools from my friend in Japan, with the sole intent to undertake a fiber study and share my experiences on the blog and in future Fiber Talk videos. It is recommended that when you plan to do a fiber study, you should keep part of the fiber/yarn from each step so you can keep a record of every kind of processing it has gone through. Here is a lock of the raw Suffolk:

You can see how incredibly greasy this fleece is, as witnessed by the orange-ish/yellow of the lock. There are also bits of vegetable matter throughout the whole lock. Now, these two facts will deter people from working with the raw fleece because it seems like a lot of work. Well, after working with the raw locks twice now (I worked with a 50g sample a few months ago), I have had excellent success with processing it in a timely manner. Suffolk is a Down breed, so the fibers easily separate from their neighbors, making processing a breeze.

For this particular batch, I did a cold soak to loosen the dirt and vegetable matter, then I scoured them one time in hot soapy water, rinsed twice, and allowed them to dry. The locks were clean, but they still had a yellow-ish cast and would produce a yarn which wasn't very white. This should be kept in mind if you plan to dye the locks. Suffolk dyes very well, though not as brightly as a true white wool might, but it does produce a deep, saturated color. This was one of the samples I dyed during my dye testing last year.

To process, I combed one end of the lock over a bowl (to catch the loose vm), then flipped the lock around and combed the other end. The resulting lock was free of vm and ready for further preparation, if I so desired.

Since I don't have a comb suited for making a proper combed top, I hand blended the locks so that the shorn end and tip end were all mixed up. I placed the flicked locks on my hackle, thereby making a combed top. I made a short video of the process on my Instagram.

This is what I got after dizzing the wool off:

It was very smooth dizzing it from my hackle, though I should probably hand blend it a bit more before I put it on the hackle in the future (I got some clumpy bits, but you know, I learned something).

I kept a light hand while drafting and made sure to keep the twist on the light-to-medium side. After spinning my cormo, I really loved putting extra twist in the ply, rather than the singles, to make a durable yarn. Since there is a lot of spring in Suffolk, I decided to spin the worsted preparation into a med-low twist single and ply the singles on themselves to produce a 2-ply true worsted yarn with the light airiness of a yarn made from carded batts. Here is the resulting yarn:

It's roughly a sport to DK weight yarn (due to bloom after washing), 168 yards and 52g. It's incredibly soft and squishy, and I would liken it to the cormo I spun earlier. Suffolk can range in fineness from 25-33 microns (according to the Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook), so if you're looking for a soft Suffolk for close-to-skin items, it would probably be best to buy a fleece in person or buy from someone who sells handspinning fleeces (some shops will even estimate the micron or Bradford counts).

Based on everything I've read, Suffolk is a medium-to-hard wearing wool (depending on micron and spinning technique) and wonderful for heirloom sweaters and the only hat you'll ever need to make. Or so I hear. :) I still have a ways to go before I can be competent with the ways I can use Suffolk, but I wanted to bring light to this understated wool--meat sheep tend to get overlooked by the handspinning community because the emphasis isn't on fleece quality or consistency. I will be weaving this, along with some other undyed wools, into a lap blanket, as soon as I get my hands on a new rigid heddle (<--- guess where I left mine). Have you worked with Suffolk before? Share your experiences in the comments below!