Thursday, November 17, 2011

Seduced by the Soft Side

Now that I can spin finer and faster, softer wools are more attractive.  I acquired a couple of Rambouillet fleece.  Spun semi-worsted at just over 16 hanks per  pound (~9,000 ypp) and cabled into a 6-ply fingering (1,300 ypp @ 40 wpi), it is is perhaps the nicest knitting yarn I have ever worked with.

The fine plies give it strength and durability despite the fine, skin-soft fiber.  Knit on #1 needles at 9.5 spi, the fabric is thin, light in weight, but very elastic, and very warm. The elasticity was something of surprise. It is far, and away, the nicest fabric that I have ever knit.

Relaxed, the fabric is nearly weatherproof.  Stretched, it opens up and ventilates, making it very good for active winter sports.  It is like Helio, only more so.

Estimated time for me to spin/ply enough for a Jersey is ~50 hours, which does not count fiber prep.   You can buy nice Rambouillet roving for half the price of Jacob or Shetland.  Rambouillet is finer than Shetland and much longer than Merino, so it is nice to spin. And, there is a lot of it around.  Rambouillet is similar in fineness and length to Cormo, but this season Cormo is in fashion, so Rambouillet is a bargain. The thin yarn means that you need less wool. ( Less than 1.5 lb compared to ~ 2.5  lb for sweater designs using commercial worsted weight wool,  but this sweater will be warmer.) Well, yes thin yarn means there is more spinning and knitting - but is that really so bad?  I mean we like spinning and knitting soft fibers - right?  My estimated total time for a Jersey is on the order of  150 hours.

And, it is just in time, as I hear that Wingham's has stopped producing gansey yarn due to equipment failure.  It was one of the best yarns on the market and it will be missed.

Friday, November 11, 2011


There is a long standing convention in the textile industry on wraps per inch (wpi). Pack to refusal!  They wind the thread into a slot or gap and they pack to refusal.  (It is a gentle and careful packing that does not  deform the yarn.)  This results in an accurate and precise number that can be related to yards per pound (ypp).

Knitters on the other hand, when making wpi measurements wind their "wpi" loosely, (well not too loosely),  and they get a number that is "fuzzy".  See for example  or It is a more modern method, but it will not give a precise and accurate number. And, it does not differentiate between worsted, woolen, and cotton/silk  It is a different culture. Then, they call the textile guys, "wrong" for using the old, precise method.  The only thing the fuzzy method is good for is putting the yarn in a Craft Yarn Council category.  And, that does not provide a lot of useful information. Particularly for somebody like me who is likely to be spinning fine yarns.  Trying to wrap 20,000 ypp singles (35s) loosely, but not too loosely, is an exercise in futility.   However, with the right gauge one can pack to refusal, and get a precise number.

So here is a solution. Use a gap gauge, wrap the yarn around it, and pack to refusal.  Then, for worsted add 10% and take the square of the number.  That will be a good estimate of the yards per pound.  For Woolens, add 16% and take the square of the number and you will have a good estimate for the ypp.  For silk and cotton add 7%, take the square of the number and you will have a good estimate for the ypp.  That is useful information.

Divide the number of wraps per inch packed to refusal by 2, and you will have a good estimate of the number that is defined as "wpi" by the Craft Yarn Council  and used by American knitters as "wpi.

If you have the yards per pound, take the square root and divide by 2, and you will have the knitters' wpi. Or, you can take the square root of  yards per pound, subtract 10 percent (16% for woolen, 7% for silk and cotton) and you will have the wraps per inch, which is the reciprocal of the thickness of the yarn. This gives the diameter of the yarn. This tells you something useful about the your yarn or thread.

In Judith MacKenzie 's the intentional spinner, she does not tell how to do wpi, but when we look at her projects we see that she says a  semi woolen yarn at 2475 ypp has 27 to 30 wpi; 1460 ypp has 18-20 wpi ; 300 ypp has 5 - 6  wpi.  She does not even try to get a number more precise than a range of 10%.  Shannon Okey's Spin to Knit,  on page 57 says that if  want to know more about grist, see Alden Amos's Big Book of Hand Spinning.  Well, Alden says, "Pack to refusal!"  Then Okey contradicts Alden on page on her page 126 by saying one can just wrap the yarn around a ruler.  No, that is not "pack to refusal".

This having two different measures in related fields, with the same name causes some confusion.  For example, yarn, that I say is 100 wpi, most knitters would call 50 wpi, and then they would say I do not know what I am taking about.  Well that is yarn spun at 22 hanks per pound or 12,000+ ypp.  I work with those kinds of threads every day.  Do they?  Measuring the yarn as 100 wpi tells me something useful about the yarn.  Measuring it as 50 wpi tell me that it is "lace weight", and I knew that without picking up a ruler.

Alden Amos gets it correct in his Big Book of Handspinning. I just wish that Alden had put in corrections for yarn construction and yarn fiber.  Then the wrap per inch  number in the table on his page 383 would be 7% to 16% less.    Peter Teal in Hand Woolcombing and Spinning gets it correct, and his Appendix III is the best conversion table. (However, he only addresses worsted yarns, and grist is stated in spin count.)  Better is scanned at

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Oil it!

Few people,(including myself), oil their spinning wheel often enough.

It does not have to be much - a fraction of a drop is enough, but it needs to often.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Better or Authentic??!

I look to history to find ways to make better textiles.

In the days when hand knitting was a profession, there were a great many talented professional hand knitters with the elan that separates the talented professional from the merely competent amateur.  I looked to this group and learned about knitting sheaths as an approach to producing better textiles.  Modern amateur knitters and historians suggested that such knitting was not "authentic."  Since then, some of these folk have gone on to write extensively about the history of knitting sheaths.  Good for them!  However, their writing would have more authenticity if they would become more proficient in the use of the various knitting sheath technologies.

Prior to the spinning jenny, there were a great many talented professional hand spinners with the elan that separates the talented professional from the merely competent amateur. Competition drove some of them to produce better products.  In contrast, today we have very few talented professional hand spinners.  If modern hand spinners were producing yarns that really satisfied me, I would not have been plowing history looking for better yarns, now would I?   Some of the amateur spinners that made denigrating comments about the historical use of knitting sheaths, are now saying that my hand spinning of better yarns is not historically accurate.

I really do not care.  The yarns are fabulous!  The virtues of yarns worsted spun from spun long wool with fine plies have been long and widely documented. Cotswold wool came into prominence  in Roman times and from the nature of the wool we can guess that they were spinning the same kind of yarns that I am now spinning.  The truth is that the talented professional hand spinners had customers that wanted better yarns and who were willing to pay for them.  I expect talented professional spinners produced a range of better yarns for different uses.  I say that the right yarn for the job is the right yarn for the job, and a talented spinner with elan will find, and make, the right yarn for that job.

And while I am on the topic, Shetland spun into fine worsted plies is the right yarn for other jobs.  Warmer than the Cotswold, I am spinning this week, but still very durable.  Start with lace yarn and keep plying.  The  fiber is thinner so you can spin thicker plies and still have drape.

My feeling is that over the last 40 years, few hand spinners had the skill to spin such yarns or the elan to see the possibilities inherent in such yarns. When those experienced spinners see a new spinner producing yarns they did  not think could be produced by hand, they respond by saying it is not authentically historic - just as they did when I brought up knitting sheaths.  If modern knitting had been adequate for my wants, I would not have been plowing history looking for a better way to knit.  Likewise, modern hand spinning was not adequate for my wants so I went to history to find a better way.

Friday, November 04, 2011


It would seem that I owe everybody an apology.

When I am doing a lot of knitting, I use hand lotion.  My favorite kinds are Udderly SMOOTH, Bert's Bees Hand salve, and Bag Balm.These hand lotions contain mixes of lanolin, olive oil, bees wax, petrolatum, plus blending agents. A project knit over several days is like to see more than one kind, of hand lotion used on it, and possibly all three. The net effect was that all of my knit objects were made of dense yarns, and those dense yarns were impregnated with hydrophobic materials.

When I finish knitting an object, I wash the object with soap and warm water. This is a sink of suds and enough scrubbing to full the wool. It is not gentle.  However, it seems that the washing has not been aggressive enough to remove all of the hand lotion from the core of the yarn. Thus, my knitting is impregnated with lanolin and other hydrophobic materials from the get go.  It is why water does not wet my knitting.   Even when the hydrophobic materials were washed off the surface of the yarns, a few days of wear would bring the lanolin and etc out of the core of the yarn, and the yarn would be water repellent again.

However, this does not change the fact, that more loosely knit (and oiled) fabrics are not weatherproof. A rain drop hits them and breaks into tiny droplets that go right through a loosely knit garment.  In contrast, when a rain drop hits a tightly knit garment, the raindrop breaks into tiny droplets that are stopped by the tight knitting.  When I did comparisons between objects knit on small needles similar objects knit on big   (i.e., recommended ) needles, both were were knit using the same mix of hand lotions, thus both were equally oiled. It is jut that I already moved to knitting with hand lotions before I started working with finer needles.

Tighter is warmer was and is a valid result.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Connecting the Dots

The Yorkshire textile industry went from local for local consumption to industrial scale for export in the period circa 1350 to 1370.  This is the period and region when and where the term "hank" (skein of 560 yards) came into English.  We can assume that the industrialization of the (wool sorting, combing, spinning, and weaving) industries included the count system.  The count system specified wool fineness in hanks per pound that could be spun from the wool by a competent spinner. The yarns from those wools were specified in hanks per pound.  With a common technical language the weavers, spinners, combers, wool sorters, wool growers, and all of the associated middle men and factors could specify needs, and products.  Thus, 16 count refers to a coarse wool, and 16s refers to a single spun so that a hank weighs one once.  Then, "20s" refers to singles spun to 20 hanks per pound.

Prior to 1350, it is hard to know what Yorkshire spinners were spinning.  However, by 1375, a lot of Yorkshire spinners were spinning worsted 16s,  20s, 40s, and etc.  These were standard yarns used by weavers to make cloth that was being produced by the ship load.  There were pack trains of such singles being carried across Yorkshire.  We know that some of these singles were dyed and plied, i.e., were not going to weavers.

The period of 1350 to 1375 is also the period during which the English navy was established, and had its first winter engagements with the (new) French navy.  It was also the beginning of British fishing in Icelandic waters. Thus, there was an increased demand for warmer clothing for sailors and fishermen.

The implication is that fine worsted singles were plied up to knitting yarns.  This makes sense.  In those days wool was valuable.  They wanted as much warmth as possible from the least weight of wool.  The way to do that is to work with yarns that have very fine plies.  If the sailor-boys were cold, it was easy to produce warmer garments by plying up thicker yarns from the fine plies that were being produced for the very large weaving industry, and then knitting the thicker yarns.

Hand spin worsted 16s (8,960 ypp) and ply them up into 3-ply (2,700 ypp), knit it on fine needles, and it will be warmer than modern mill spun sport weight (1,000 ypp) knit on # 4 needles.  Weird but true! The fabric knit from the modern mill spun will look thicker and warmer, but the eye is deceived. On the other hand, that hand spun, worsted spun, 3-ply is going to be very thin.  It will as thin as what we call "lace-weight".  My point is that those old hand spun Shetland shawls knit from "lace-weight" on "knitting pins" were warmer than a shawl that a modern knitter would knit from modern mill spun sport weight on the recommended needles. Modern mill spun gansey yarn (5-ply worsted sport weight) knit on #1 needles is warmer than hand spun 3-ply (worsted, 2,700 ypp).  The other side of this is that when I ply my hand spun worsted 20s up into a 16 wpi yarn, it is much denser, stronger, and warmer than any modern mill spun 16 wpi knitting yarn.  When that hand spun, fine ply, 16 wpi is knit on fine needles, it is much warmer than any modern mill spun knitting yarn knit on any needles.

Yes, the pre-mill-spun knit fabrics did tend to be made from thin yarns made from fine plies - because that was what worked.  If I need a warm sweater, I will spin fine singles and ply up to what ever yarn thickness I need, because a few extra hours of spinning will bring greater warmth and years of durability.  I can do this because  I can easily spin 16s. or 20s or even 24s.  So could the old spinners.  It is what they did, all day, day after day.

When mill spun made yarn cheap, we lost our professional hand spinners in the period of a generation. Yes, there were still hand spinners around the world, supplying family and local markets. However, hand spinning on a large scale was gone, and with it went a variety of skills and tools.

Some of these tools and skills are still known by a few, but are ignored by most hand spinners.  Consider differential rotation speed (DRS).  DRS is well documented in Amos's "Big Book of Handspinning", and yet DRS is ignored and even denied by a great many spinners.  Peter Teal was an engineer, who wrote an important book on Wool Combing and Worsted Spinning.  However, he never understood DRS.  Abby Franquemont wrote a well respected book on spinning, but judging from her posts on Ravelry, she does not understand DRS.

How do I know DRS works?  Because I use it to spin worsted  20s and 30s quickly and easily. Certainly, 20s,  30s and even 235s can be spun using a spindle or ST wheel or an Irish Tension/German Tension wheel, but not as quickly and easily.  The only tool that comes close to DRS is Great Wheel with a Miner's Head, and there quality problems tend to intrude at speed. The DD system with a precise DRS solution is likely to be 30% faster.  The other tool required for such spinning is a distaff.