Friday, November 28, 2014

Gold and Silver in Tapestries

The best argument for the timing of the spread and use of DRS spinning technology is the use of gold and silver in tapestry yarns.

Spinning such yarn is difficult to produce with good quality using the various kinds of spindles, or single drive flyer/bobbin assemblies, but is easy to produce using differential rotation speed controlled spinning equipment.  This can be easily demonstrated experimentally using the wire manufactured for wire wrap prototyping.  It is not cheap, but it is less expensive than real gold or silver wire, and has many similar physical properties to well annealed silver or gold (see for example

Spindles and single drive flyer/bobbin assemblies tend to accumulate twist on a stop and go basis depending on the fiber's capacity to accumulate and distribute twist.  Metal wire does not accumulate twist.  The properties of  wire require a continuous process with no periods of yarn lock.  This is very difficult to achieve with spindles or single drive flyers, but is the normal and standard operating condition of DRS controlled flyers.

Thus, where we see industrial quantities of tapestry yarns being produced containing gold and silver, we can presume that DRS spinning technology was available.  This is reasonable, as such tapestry yarn production also used silk, which provides a direct link back to origins of the DRS technology in the Italian silk industry.

Anywhere you see gold or silver as part of the material in a tapestry, you can be sure that DRS spinning equipment was used to produce or wind the yarn.

Certainly wire can be core spun with fiber as in or

Intertwined: The Art of Handspun Yarn, Modern Patterns, and Creative Spinning

 By Lexi Boeger.

However, one purpose of gold and silver in tapestry yarn was to provide more luster to the textile. Frequently, the gold or silver yarns were prepared by wrapping a silk core with a spiral of a flattened band of the metal.  This is the opposite of the modern "fiber-wire" craft.

Producing such yarns with a single drive system requires the takeup from hell, and some kind of a braking device on the silk core. However, once the width of the metal band is defined and whorls made, with DRS, the process is easy and fast.  Both the silk core and the metal band are supplied from reels. The metal band is wrapped around the silk with no twist inserted into to the metal band upstream from the point where the metal is wrapped around the core.  Twist is inserted into the core and must up run up stream from the point where the metal is wrapped around the core.  If the metal band is ~2 mm wide, then about 12 tpi are likely to be inserted into the core. The twist issue limits the use of short fibers such as wool and cotton.  With silk, one can start with -6 tpi, add 12 tpi and end up with 6 tpi which is reasonable. Short fibers cannot go through 0 tpi and remain competent. And a short fiber core with enough twist to be competent, will be over twisted if 12 tpi is added.

The elasticity of silk with the extensibility of the metal spiral make the metal wrapped, silk core lighter, stronger for its weight, and more weavable than solid metal or twisted filigree metal wire constructions. The need for elasticity for weaving limits the use of the bast fibers such as linen or hemp (a spiral metal band around a no-stretch core results in a rigid structure.)

The next time you see a "history of spinning", ask yourself if the history is consistent with the manufacture of yarn for tapestries.  The history of  tapestries with their known provence, industrial scale of production, and severe technical challenges are a good test for any history of spinning.

Do you really think some contract spinner in her cottage is going to have large amount of gold, silver and silk sitting around for making tapestry yarns?  Any history of spinning that does not include the production of tons and tons of tapestry yarns is incomplete.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Stating the obvious and elucidating the trivial.

Everyone knows the two dowel technique for rolling rolags off of a drum carder.

However, when one is spinning finer, one needs thinner rolags.

I use the steel doffer as one dowel and a steel gansey needle as the other. This makes a smaller, thinner rolag.  Even when the rolag has been wound rather tight, the gansey needle slides right out, giving enough slack for the doffer to easily slide out.

My rolags weigh just under 5 grams, these days I spin them into about 50 meters of single. The rolags below do not look very uniform, but they average out.

When I have spun 2 rolags, I have about 100 meters on the bobbin and  I wind off before the effective diameter of the bobbin changes too much.  When I have done 10 rolags, I know I have about a hank, and I rewind, measure, and weigh.

40 rolags with doffer and 
knitting needle use to make them

I am sure that EVERYONE else has already worked out this trick, but just forgot to post it so the rest of us would know how to wind a smaller rolag that works better for spinning fine.

I am still a little surprised at how fast the process goes.  Working from batts that have been carded twice, it only takes about half an hour to card and roll the 40 or so rolags needed for an afternoon's spinning.  The result is some 2,500 yards of 5,600 ypp woolen single in ~6 hours.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014


I like cooking breakfast for my wife, but I do not spend all day cooking breakfast because breakfast must be done in time for work and play.

I like spinning, but I intend to get it done, so I have time for other things.   That means spinning fast.

It is not the speed that is important, it knowing how long it will take, and the "getting it done" that is important.

For me, spinning is just one step on a path to better textiles.

If you spin just for the purpose of using spinning to take up time, that is fine.  I do not care.  I am not writing for you.  I am writing for folks that want to make better textiles.  Just go spin and leave me to make better textiles.

This blog is written for myself and a very few, smart spinners. It is an audience that understands the naming and function of all parts of spinning tools including cap and ring spinning frames.

It is an audience that knows how to find information resources.

It is an audience that knows how to do all the math for spinning and weaving.

It is an audience that has (mostly) seen and touched my work at one time or another.  They give comments and suggestions in person.  I have found these to be of great help. The comments and suggestions of "Anonymous" have not been helpful.  My feeling is that Anonymous  is just an older version of one of those stupid teenage cliques that stand around being rude to everyone that is not just like them.  These are people that think their ignorance is as good as other people's facts.

However, spinning is performance based.  Facts always win out.   Someday, you will be walking around a fiber festival with your kids, and they will see me spinning, and they will ask, "Mom, how can he spin so fast?"   And, the truth will be out, some people spin faster than others.  Facts always win out.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Cross check

When I make a change to my wheel, I go back and check how it performs Scotch Tension and Irish Tension (single drive, bobbin lead).

Thus, I setup the new mother of  all  for Scotch Tension. RPM was about 65% of what I get with DRS, but net productivity was only ~ half for the 5,600 ypp woolen weft I am currently spinning.

Productivity for single drive, bobbin lead was better, and in the range of 70 % of  DRS. It must be noted that productivity was not as high as I would had expected for the achieved bobbin rotation speeds.

With the accelerator wheel and large whorls,  there was not as much difference between the performance of the #1 and #0 fliers as there is without the accelerator wheel and large whorls. The moral of the story is that: Small whorls have large slippage!

A second moral to the story is that gravity is a very good way to tension the drive belt, and that when the flier/bobbin assembly can move, vibration in the system is reduced.

However, the uniformity and grist control from DRS was distinctly better.  This may have just been a function of my spending more time spinning DRS recently, but given the higher productivity and better grist control of DRS, I am not going to put the effort into keeping my long draw and inch worm skills sharp.

Is the extra effort (and math) for DRS worth while? It means that I can spin/ply a hank of  5-ply gansey yarn in a day.That means I can spin the yarn for a sweater in a week and have a couple of days of knitting rather than spinning.  And, for big projects where I budget a thousand hours for spinning, it means that I have an extra 300 hours for weaving rather than spinning.    That is almost 8 weeks,  That is enough time to weave the yarn from (700 hours of fast spinning) or (1000 hours of spinning slow).  Thus, by spinning 30% faster, my weaving time is free. And, the quality of the yarn that I produce with DRS is much better, so my cloth is better.

The greatest comparative advantage in textiles is in better spinning.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Balloon

If the yarn being spun is not under tension, it will "blow" out of the hecks on the flyer.

This is a matter of centripetal forces rather than aerodynamic forces.

It is not a problem with Scotch tension, and not much of a problem with Irish tension.

However, with DRS, if one drafts faster than than the yarn is being wound on the bobbin, then there will be slack in the yarn between the drafting triangle and the bobbin.  If one is spinning slowly, and working a good distance from the orifice, then the yarn may hang slack between the drafting triangle and the orifice. Onlookers accustomed to other spinning systems will be surprised.

At higher speed, the slack yarn will be pulled out of the flyer hecks and balloon  around the flyer.  This is only visible with a strobe.  In normal light, it looks like Scotch Tension with taut yarn between the drafting triangle and the orifice. In practice, it is very different because with DRS the yarn only winds on as the proper amount twist is inserted whereas with ST the yarn can wind on regardless of the twist.

On the other hand, DRS  wind-on can easily  generate enough tension to break off the yarn. With DRS, if one pauses drafting while the flyer/bobbin assembly is turning, the yarn will break off.  This can be frustrating to the point of tears, particularly as the spinner first begins to work rapidly.

However, at higher speed, one can draft, and store an extra foot or so of yarn as a balloon flying around the flyer.  This gives the yarn extra time to level and settle before being wound onto the bobbin. This yarn will be wound as the proper twist is inserted.   It also puts some slack in the system so that break off is not instantaneous if there is a pause in the drafting. At my current spinning speed of ~7 yd/minute, this gives me 2 or 3 seconds to fix a problem in the yarn.  At slower spinning speeds the balloon of  yarn around the flyer is less well formed, and more likely to tangle with the other arm of the flyer, bringing everything to a catastrophic stop.

With DRS, spinning faster may allow spinning some recalcitrant fleeces with fewer tears.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Distance from drafting triangle to bobbin.

I am going to blandly assert that it takes some time for a drafted stream of fibers to "level" and "settle" into a competent yarn.

If one spinning slowly, this time is small enough to be ignored. However, as one spins faster, it becomes a consideration.

Then, one advantage of long draw spinning is that it gives time for this leveling and settling process to occur.  However, in a DRS system, one does not wave the yarn around, to give it time to level and settle. When spinning fast with a DRS system, one simply has to allow more distance between the drafting triangle and the orifice.

One can estimate the required time, by scaling off of Victorian texts on  (power) spinning and doing basic calculations.  At some point, the cap spinning technique of using a "balloon" becomes useful.  Balloons require a clear volume of space to operate.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Under Spun ?


It is soft, fluffy, carded Rambouillet woolen spun at 5,600 ypp @ 12 tpi. It is soft and lofty.

The current batts were scoured with a potassium-lanolin soap, and have a particularly soft texture, but something of a sheepy smell.

It will be woven as weft, fulled, teased to a nap, and clipped to make nice wool flannel. (I hope!)  If it has more twist, it will not tease up properly.  It takes a while to work out just how all this is best done.

As a sport weight, the woolen spun 5-ply is is very knitable (after fulling), but that is a by-product, a diversion, and not the goal. In dry cold, it is perhaps the warmest, softest, most elastic yarn that I have ever produced.   And, it can be brushed to a soft nap.  In the rain, well! Weatherproofing a pile of swatches produced the discussions on baby oil.  In the beginning is Spinning.  

If you are interested in knitting such yarns, spin some up yourself. In the past, I have given the required details. It is easy. I even showed you the best lazy Kate for making 5-ply. Did you think I would cover the topic again?  No!  We did knitting!  We did plying. Why should I waste time putting such stuff in the Blog again and again?   I took 3 swings at lanolin because some are bigoted against baby oil.

Knitting, and even weaving are sideshows.  The base of great textiles is great spinning.  On the path to great spinning, details matter.  A small comparative advantage in spinning is better than a large comparative advantage in weaving, or even a huge comparative advantage in knitting.  With the TV off, production of 5,600 ypp woolen singles is something over 9 yards per minute.  With a better wind-off procedure, total production is over 500 yards per hour.

These days, knitting is something that goes on in the background. I do not expect to have anything interesting to say about it in the foreseeable future.

To a certain extent, spinning is very much like a video game.  Spinning finer, or spinning faster, or spinning more consistantly is just as addictive as seeking higher scores in a video game.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Drive Belt Tension

Before I bought a spinning wheel, I wanted a nice wooden screw tension on the drive band.  The wheel that I bought had a steel screw, so I bought the tools and jigs, and learned to make wooden screws.  It took a while.

While I was learning to make wooden screws, the issue of vibration in spinning wheels/ flyer/bobbin assemblies came up, and I put a lot of effort into damping vibration.  I learned that I really like gravity based drive belt tensioning systems.

Springs can work very well, but ultimately, gravity is simpler and easier to use. Being easier to use, ultimately, gravity results in higher productivity.

Some will say that vibration is not a problem in their spinning wheels/flyer/bobbin assemblies.  To which I reply, "Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat, . . . . .. .."

As you spin faster, at some point, vibration will be a problem.

Until recently, I had been using a system of weights and springs to damp vibration, but the change in geometry allowed me to do away with the springs and weights.  Or, rather the waxed cotton drives  bands become the springs, and the accelerator wheel and the flyer/bobbin assemblies are the weights.  Under static load cotton is not much of a spring, but under dynamic conditions where it is vibrating, it does act as a spring. 

Revised Geometry

Last spring, as I started using accelerator wheels, the advances came fast and furious.  And then things stabilized for months.  It was a time of learning to use the tool.  After all, while I have seen drawings of such tools, I have never seen such tools actually being used by any other spinner.

Anyway, for the last month, I have had thoughts that the geometry could be better. First trials of first prototype are very promising.  What I had thought to be a reasonable rate of production is clearly the bottom end of the reasonable rates of production that can be easily achieved when the tools are properly adjusted.

In this version, it is about 30" or 36" from the orifice to the drafting hand.  The longer distance between drafting and bobbin allow more distance for the single to "settle", allowing the production of a more uniform yarn.  And, there is slightly more tension in both sets of drive bands, limiting drive band  slippage.  Top  flier speeds did not change much, but speeds of 3,500 rpm are quieter and less effort, so that I am routinely able to spin much faster.  Now, I can hear the movie while spinning 5.600 ypp/ 12 tpi woolen singles at more than 7 yards per minute.  Worsted at that grist goes at ~10 yd/min.

I am surprised at how much a 6" change in geometry changes the system.  I know I should not have been surprised given that even very tiny changes in whorl diameters dramatically change the system.

My two take away lessons from this experiment are 1) the importance of wheel/spinner geometry to yarn quality; and, 2) that a loose and self-adjusting system can run smoother and with less vibration than a system built to feel solid and well built when it is not running, but where vibration generated by the knot in the driveband can propagate through the system.

A system using relatively crude bearing technology can run at flyer/bobbin speeds in excess of 4,000 rpm. It is a matter of isolating and damping vibration.

I am sure that the rubberneckers will take this post to mean that I have not known how to adjust my wheel - despite that fact that I have been spinning twice or 3-times as fast as they have been. Now, if they want to keep up with me, they will need to spin much faster.  Good luck to them.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Grist quality assurance and quality control

I have been spinning weft from Rambouillet. The goal is a woolen single at about 5,600 ypp

I spin, and wind off into cakes.  A recent grist check was to wind a hank and check its weight.

At 46 grams per 562 yards, it is well within 2% of the desired grist.  The cake on the left contains ~ 700 yards.  I check grist on about every fourth cake.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

SIP, KIP, lanolin, and baby oil

Lots of folk get all riled up about baby oil, and they call me names.

However, do you notice how few of them offer to meet me a public place and prove that they can knit faster, or tighter?  Do you notice how few of them offer to meet me in a public space to prove that they can spin faster or finer?

I spin and knit in public on a regular basis, and am perfectly willing to make a point of being at a particular Stitches or fiber fair on a particular day.  We can meet up, and knit or spin face to face.

I would love to have somebody show me how to spin 5-ply gansey yarn faster.  I would love to have somebody show me how to knit ganseys better.  If you do not like the way I spin or knit, then show me a better way! And, how many of the folks who got all wound up about baby oil actually do oil and reoil their woolens with lanolin?  They do not.  Wool fat stains an uneven, ugly pee yellow, and they want pretty.

Show me better tools and I will upgrade in a flash. Think about it.  Somebody brings ups "skate boards" and the next day, I have incorporated skateboard bearings into my wheel. When somebody gives me graphite impregnated Delrin, the next day I have bearings from graphite impregnated Delrin. I am always willing to upgrade my tools.  Show me better skills and I will undertake to learn them as soon as possible.  I always expect my students to surpass me, so that I can learn from them.

 I believe that each generation should stand on the last generation's shoulders to see farther, and to reach higher. And, I believe that teachers are entitled to stand on their students shoulders to see farther, and to reach higher.

I spin because I want better yarn. People tell me, "Oh, I make prettier yarn!"  OK, but the folks who do make prettier yarn, do not make useful quantities of it.  And, I want useful quantities of better yarn. I want to make 8 pounds of prettier yarn as a project, not a career.  And, I always want better yarn, not just prettier yarn.

Mostly, I find that making better yarn involves inserting more twist into the yarn - that mostly means spinning finer, and finer. Spinning useful amounts of finer yarn mean inserting twist faster.  

Boiling Fleece

If you just toss a bit of fleece in a pot, you do not know how much potassium salts there are to react with the lanolin and potentially the wool fiber.  Thus, one must watch the temperature, and keep it to no more than 140F, and the time ( no more than 20 minutes) to avoid damage to the wool.

If one rinsed the wool in cold water prior to heating it in water, then some or all of the alkaline salts will be removed and there is much less potential for damaging the wool, but some other cleaning agent will have to be added to clean the wool.

The cleaning trick that I offered the other day of cleaning unrinsed fleece by heating it in water will not work if the alkaline salts have been rinsed out of the wool.  And, if there is any excess of alkaline salts in the wool, they WILL react with the wool if the temperature goes over 140F more more than 20 minutes.  This is not felting, this is alkaline digestion.  Since the worker does not know the amounts of alkaline salts or lanolin in the fleece, temperature and time are the only safety factors.

Baby OIl III

I wash wool objects with soap.  So does Alden Amos.  He said so in his Big, Blue Book.  It works.
I tried a lot of other things, but soap works with a minimum potential to damage the wool.

Soap must be rinsed out of the wool. Given the nature of baby oil and water, there will be enough shear forces generated by the rinse process to disperse the baby oil through the water.  And, the water forms a hydrophilic film on the wool.

Baby oil is not like wool fat in many ways.  That is OK, the liquid lanolin in my cupboard is not like wool fat in many ways.  I have put all three on woolens and tested the results time after time.

The wool fat will provided better water proofing,  but these days, I put baby oil and not wool fat or liquid lanolin in the wool rinse water.

Now, what have you actually MEASURED?

Lanolin in spinning and knitting is like Santa Clause for children in the US circa 1900.  It has some truth, but it is also a myth. There was a Santa Clause, but in 1900, much of what was attributed to Santa Clause was the actions of others.  In the same way, at one time much wool was water proofed with lanolin. And, spinners/knitters remember that and forget that today, much of that water proofing is performed with or by other agents.

As a chemical engineering student,  I worked with reagents.  Lanolin was a reagent.  Wool fat was the technical grade of lanolin. Technical grade materials were still reagents. Today, we can buy wool fat from Now Foods labeled 100% pure lanolin.

 Those of you who have taken chemistry know that it is really only a pharmaceutical grade of perhaps 99% pure.  But, such are the lies of commerce.

Many health food stores carry it at a price of $10-$12 for 7 oz..  If you think lanolin is so magical, buy some!  Rub it between your fingers.  Smell it.  Do you want to put it on your fine new, just knit woolens?  Just how are you going to apply it? Will it stain?  (Oh, yes!!)  And, in a few months it will start to smell like a sheep.  And, when it smells like sheep, it will attract moths. Lets see - that would be next spring! , about the time moths will be looking to start a new generation. And it will attract, and hold dirt and grit.

It takes real courage to put wool fat on your fine woolens.  I have that courage, but most modern spinners and knitters do not.

I mix it with beeswax, olive oil, lavender oil and other things to make a hand lotion for knitting. All of my knits come off the needles well oiled. (My hand lotion also leaves a film on all the door knobs in the house, so if I have been knitting, I need to go around and wash the door knobs before my wife gets home. This is serious hand lotion, that puts Bag Balm by Dairy Association Co to shame. ) Then, I wash my just knit woolens with real soap and hot water, and put baby oil in the rinse water.

I encourage everyone to put a little pure "lanolin" on their hands and then go hug all the "rubberneckers" who claim to like lanolin on their woolens.  Then, at least the backs of the rubbernecker's sweaters will be water proof -- at least until the moths get to them   : )

Saturday, November 08, 2014

More on Lanolin III

Yes, Virginia, there is a "soap-like" suint in sheep fleece.  It can be removed with cold water, including rain, so there is less of it in wet places and wet years.

However, I live in a dry place, and last year was a dry year.

I have some fine, local, Rambouillet fleece.  (They wore their little sheep suits all year, so the fleece are very clean). I can take a steamer basket, and fill it with the fleece (more than a pound), put it in a pot of cold water with a weighted screen over the top to keep the wool under water.  The result is a pot full of wool, but with space for water to circulate on every side of the wool. I do not add any "soap", detergent, or other chemical cleaning aids.  It is a pot of  raw fleece and water.

I put that on the stove and gently heat it to ~ 130F.  At that point there is a thin layer of white foam across the top of the pot.  Then  I let it sit for 10 minutes.  I lift the basket out, and I have ~6 oz of the cleanest, nicest wool.  Yes the dirty, soapy water needs to be drained and the wool needs to be rinsed, but this is a way to get wool very clean with minimum water, minimum effort,  and minimum agitation (potential for felting).  Every so often, I have to say this, "It is like magic!"

It turns out that  the price of the fleece includes all the ingredients for a potassium/lanolin soap - just the thing to gently clean fine wool fibers and leave them soft and perfectly conditioned.  All I need to do is add some soft water and heat.  And  this is a very good demonstration that there is more than just lanolin, VM, and grit in fleece.

Heating much above 140F may damage the wool!  I use a thermometer. I am not going to advocate this system of cleaning fleece until I have done some more testing.  For example, there is a real potential for some parts of the pot to get too hot and some of the wool being damaged.

Will it work in wet years in wet places?  I doubt it,  but I find it the easiest way to scour the fleece that I have on hand.  This is perhaps the only advantage to the great California Drought.  The conventional wisdom on scouring wool is in Alden Amos, pg 57 et seq. It works very well but uses more water, and requires more movement of the fiber.  However, the AA method is more predictable.

It also tells me that it was very easy to scour fleece by putting them in a big (iron) pot, covering them with water, and gently warming it.  In wet, years or wet places, a small amount of lye from leaching wood ash could have been added to the pot to help make the lanolin soap.

And if the lanolin was needed, then the fleece could be rinsed in cold water first to remove the potassium salts, and the lanolin could be skimmed off as the pot warmed.  This would leave more lanolin on the wool unless another cleaning agent was used

Friday, November 07, 2014

More on Lanolin II

Sheep produce lanolin and suint, and together they keep the sheep's fleece oiled without the grooming required by animals like beaver.  Oiled fleece can repel water, so the fleece can trap the sheep's body heat and keep the sheep warm.

When we shear the fleece, everything changes.  The wool is soaked in cold water to remove the soap-like suint and hot water to remove the lanolin (and grit).

When we treat the wool to felt less, the wool become less water repellent. When we dye wool  (particularly deep blues and reds), the wool fibers become more water repellent. Long wool (e.g., Romney) dyed deep blue is fairly water repellent.  Fine, undyed wools are less water repellent.

Then, in the old days many mills used the lanolin produced in the scouring process as a cheap spinning oil.  It gave the wool water repellency and a certain aroma.  However, lanolin is a waxy material, and if you are wearing wool oiled with lanolin, the lanolin will come off (a little bit at a time) on everything it touches. If you go commando - it will come off on you. Pick up a child and some lanolin comes off on the child and the child's clothes.  Every time you go out in the rain, some small amount of lanolin will be washed out of the fabric.  Over time wool fabrics loose lanolin.

And, lanolin oxidizes, becomes sticky, becomes brittle, and flakes off.  The sticky lanolin attracts and holds dirt, meaning the garment must be washed more often, and the washing takes the lanolin out of the fabric.  And, lanolin attracts moths.  Lanolin is not magic.  It is goopy stuff that helps keep wool dry for a brief period.  Like everything on a sailing ship, it requires constant attention and maintenance.

I wear my woolens places where they get dirty, and I wash my woolens.  If you also wash your lanolin coated woolens, then soon, there will be much less lanolin on the wool.

Sea water contains plankton that is strained out of the water by well knit woolens.  In certain seasons, if you get doused by breaking waves, your sweater will pick up enough plankton that in a few hours it will smell like every dead thing that ever came out of the sea.  I do not care if you live in a sheep barn, sometimes your fisherman's sweater must be washed with soap before it can be taken into the house/barn.  At that time, any and all lanolin in the sweater will be scoured out.

(If it is a real fisherman's sweater, that must be waterproof, the lanolin can be replaced by melting some wool fat (lanolin) in a big pot of 125F water and raising the sweater through the film of lanolin on the surface of the water.  This will work for fisherman's garments (already stained) but is likely to stain other garments.)  And, garments firmly knit from worsted spun, long wools will tolerate this treatment,  but any fine wools, or loosely knit objects, or woolen spun objects, are likely to felt in the worst way. 

As I said, I wash my woolens on a regular basis, and reoil by putting a drop or two of baby oil in the rinse water.  It is not as good as lanolin for water repellency, but it is much less effort, and much better than nothing,   It keeps me from smelling like a wet sheep when I go into the yacht club for a pint.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

More on Lanolin

I was doing forestry research for the American Chestnut project back in the days when it was run by Lou Ismay.  We went out in all weather, and we always seemed to be wet.  The only time it was dry was when everything was frozen.

I found some US Army infantry uniforms that had been made at the end of WWI to protect the troops from gas attacks.  The war ended, and by WWII they had better materials so the gas-tight wool sat in a warehouse.  Anyway, they were fine, thick wool with flaps that buttoned over the openings.  Oh, My!! They sopped up water and got wet.

My mother, who understood such things said, "They have to be oiled with lanolin."   I went to the library and found the old manuals and figured out how to do it. I bought the best quality reagents, and followed the instructions.  Then,  I had oiled wool that kept me warm and dry in any weather.

A few weeks after oiling, the lanolin would start to oxidize, and then when it got wet it would smell like sheep.  This was not bad in the forest with a camp fire, with the smell of the wet forest around us.

Then, I was drafted, and ordered to an inductee meeting one evening. It was a cold, rainy night, an hour's bicycle ride away, so I wore one of my oiled wool shirts. I arrived soaking wet, but comfortable.

The sergeant in charge took exception to my "lamby smell", and said things the way only a sergeant can say them. He used me as an excuse to display his command of the Army vernacular. It did not really bother me. I knew there was no way in the world he could have completed the bike ride I had just already ridden, and I had another longer, colder, uphill bike ride to do after the meeting. Nevertheless, 28 years later, when Jan from Frangipani yarns  ( brought up the topic, I was all ears. She told me about baby oil to oil wool.

I like lanolin.  I make my own hand lotion for knitting and it is mostly beeswax, lanolin, olive oil, and lavender oil.  However, when lanolin is applied to wool, it forms a thin layer on the wool fibers.  That thin layer has a huge surface area allowing oxidation.  (And the oxidation helps the lanolin to bond to polar regions on the wool.)  The oxidation products and water produce the sheepy smell that raised the ire of the sergeant.  When you put lanolin on wool it will oxidize, and when the oxidized lanolin gets gets wet, it will have a sheepy smell. I do not mind the sheepy smell too much.  My wife has several sweaters that have lanolin on them, but when it rains, she always wears a parka over them so they do not get wet. Nevertheless, the last time we were coming back from Pt Reyes, it was her sweater, not mine, that perfumed the car with a sheep smell. I wear my sweaters in the rain and salt spray, and they do not smell of sheep.  They may smell of fish, but they do not smell of sheep.

If you wash or dry clean your wool, and remove all the oils, then in the next rain, the wool will sop up water, and will not keep you dry (or warm). Thus, you need a rain coat or parka or umbrella to keep your wool dry. Or, you can just wear your wool in the house and not take your fine gansey out into the weather.

So, your options in the rain are wet wool, or a silicon product such as Scotchguard, or lanolin and smell like a sheep in the wet, or baby oil and run the risk of stains.

A drop or two of baby oil in the rinse water (after washing with real soap)  will form a film over every fiber, so the change in color is very uniform and there is no visible stain. None! I have been using baby oil on all of my outdoor woolens for about 12 years now.  It keeps me comfortable in the rain.  It lets me wear my ganseys when I am splashing in the water, and  then lets them dry quickly afterwards.   Lanolin also works, but it is properly applied by dissolving the lanolin in enough benzene to submerge the garment.  Benzine is hazardous, toxic, carcinogenic, and any residual is a solvent waste that requires special handling under RCRA (40 CFR 260 et seq.). Other methods of applying lanolin to wool fabrics do run a real risk of staining.   The wool must be re-oiled whenever the wool is washed or cleaned.

Oh! Wet wool is a different color than dry wool. Freshly cleaned woolens shows splashes of water.

Much wool from the commercial  channels will not tolerate washing with soap and water.

Baby oil is easier.  Jan sells good yarn and dispenses very good advice. I like venders that give smart advice on how to use their products.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

My Favorite Yarn (11/2014)

Some of you know that I always seek as much warmth as possible from a minimum amount of wool.  This is a result of too much hiking with heavy backpacks.

I like sport weight yarns, I think they are a nice compromise between patterns with fine detail, and stitches that are large enough to see.  And, sport weight works with my favorite needles.

I tried 10-ply worsted spun sport weight and ended up cabling it so it always seemed harsh.  It was very durable but it never made it past boot sock heels. I still have a ton of it up stairs.

More recently, I have been spinning the Rambouillet from Anna Harvey
( )  as woolen and semi-worsted weft.  Of course some of that gets plied up as knitting yarn, and I find that I love the semi-worsted as 5-ply sport weight.

It is not as durable as my worsted spun 5-ply, but it is much more elastic, and it has more loft.  After knitting and blocking, I brush up a nap and it is a very skin friendly fabric. The samples have been properly abused, but do not seem to pill -- the extra twist in the fine singles seem to keep the fibers from pulling out and pilling.   With all that twist in it, it is more durable than any mill spun sport weight or worsted weight yarn that I know of - even those yarns made for knitting boot socks with large amounts of nylon them.

And this stuff has luster.  JM has told me that Rambouillet never has luster, but this stuff does. Sometimes it gleams and glints like the sparkly synthetics.

The singles need about 15 tpi, but I have not made up the whorls for that yet, so I just fudge it by using the 18 tpi whorl and a slightly larger effective bobbin diameter, e.g., I wind off frequently, and leave a layer of yarn on the bobbin.

This stuff is about 60% more spinning effort than worsted spun gansey yarn.  Is it worth it?  Not sure yet.  Maybe 3-ply semi-worsted sport weight is good enough?  Or maybe not - not sure the 3,400 ypp singles have enough twist to give the final yarn enough elasticity or whether those singles are fine enough to drop out as much VM.   They are OK for weaving, but knitting is different.

I tend to think the old timers understood things well enough that when they settled on 5,400 ypp singles as a building block of knitting yarns, they had good reasons. I should understand what they knew, before I try to reinvent the wheel.  Perhaps, it really is worth while to just spin the 5,400 ypp singles.

It is a great yarn -- and I have already spun a few miles of the 5.400 ypp semi- worsted single for it.


I was recently told that I should go back to school to learn something about fashion.

I understand fashion as a status display.  I know that at it's best, it is a combination of excellence in design, materials, craftsmanship, and - marketing. I understand the delicate balance between the arty desire for something new, and the demands of functionality and wearability. I have been in the sweaty circles of designers pushed to go too far; and, the production of collections that lack wearability.

That is not the kind of stuff that I knit. (I would never admit to sacrificing wearablity for novel design effects!!)

I am more likely to knit something that you would want to wear when sailing, or hiking, or skiing, or while tending ewes that are lambing in a blizzard, or when you are checking on the neighbors during a hurricane, or restoring power after an ice storm, or shoveling the driveway after a snow-storm or gathering wood to keep the wood stove going and the house from freezing..  Oh, you do not do these things? So what!  You are not dead yet.  You may need to do something like them in the future.  In which case, you will need warm fuzzies.  Then, think of me, and knit them.  It is not fashion, it is knitting.  Not all knitting is about fashion.

I was told that the stuff I knit is far too tight to be considered good knitting.  However, I see QEII at Balmoral wearing sweaters knit just as tightly as I knit.  If the Queen can wear it, I can knit it. Scottish castles are cold drafty places. No matter how many heaters and tapestries there are, warm fuzzies are welcome.

A well knit object is one that fits its purpose.  Sometimes the purpose is to show skin, and sometimes the purpose is to keep the skin warm.  The good knitter knits objects that serve their purpose.  I always knit to serve a purpose.  Everything that I knit is designed for a particular range of temperatures and conditions. Mostly, tightly knit 5-ply makes a nice 3-season sweater for local  conditions, and spring/fall wear in the Sierra. ( We closed Buckeye Campground, and it was a little  cool.) Winter in the Sierra wants 6 or 8 ply.  Summer in the Slot wants 10 -ply.  Thus, I choose the sweater to match the conditions.

I started knitting because I wanted warmer woolies.  Anyone that finds fault with that does not understand cold.  She says, "I live in Canada, I understand cold!"  No!  Living in a tent in cold weather or  fishing for cod on a fine April day off of Fortress Louisbourg will give you a whole new understanding of  the value of warm woolies.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Indigo and woad or Isatis tinctoria

Lustrous wool fibers mostly present a hydrophobic surface.   In a few places, there are polar bonds where water droplets can attach or dye molecules can bond.  If those places are bonded to a (blue) dye molecule then those previously hydrophilic areas also become hydrophobic, and there is no place whatsoever for a water droplet to rest, so it will be easily shaken off.  (Yes, I anthropomorphize hydrogen bonds.  ) 

The bottom line is that blue wool sweaters ARE more water repellent.  This can be affected by any of the modern mill treatments that chemically alter the surface of the wool fibers -- most notably the treatments that make wools machine washable, but also aggressive carbonization to remove VM, and processes to stretch and thin the wool fibers.

This tells us that woad likely has such wide distribution in the North Atlantic because it was carried from island to island.  It was carried because it was vital to making serviceable clothing for seamen. Woad (and indigo) made wool more water repellent.  (And woad was a treatment for ulcers. NB the prevalence of ulcers on seamen.) This tells us that the ecru Arans were either made for tourists or were intended to be worn under an oil skin.  Since woad is found on the Aran Islands, then at sometime in the (long) past, it was brought to the islands, and likely used to make blue woolens.  (And, you also find Urtica dioca, there because nettle fiber was preferred for fishing line and nets.)  

This also explains why soap (not detergent) is the better washing aid for woolens that will be worn in the rain or fog.  Soap will tend to make (natural fiber) wool more water repellent.  If your garment care instructions indicate that it is to be "dry cleaned" then it was not intended to be worn in foul weather.  Real fishermen, who need to preserve the fine blue color of their woolens will wash them in stale urine.  (If the object was properly dyed, additional acid will not act as a mordant.  If the object was not properly dyed, then the dye should be set with acid before the fisherman puts it on.) Sadly, real fishermen must rely on real spinners, real dyers, and real knitters, rather than on mills run by bean counters.

A woolen washed in soap, with a drop of baby oil in the rinse water does not need lanolin. Lanolin smells sheepy when it gets wet.  Lanolin attracts moths.  Lanolin gets sticky and attracts/holds dirt. "Wool spun in the grease" and "oiled wool" are myths that stand in the way of warm woolens worn in foul weather.

Anyone that wants to assert that blue sweaters are not warmer than other colors, should be eager to discuss Lewis Acids/Bases and the structure of wool fibers in excruciating detail.

Monday, November 03, 2014


Many, many modern knitters attribute the warmth of the old knit woolens to lanolin.  However, lanolin oxidizes, and then when it gets wet it has a nasty sheepy smell.  Lanolin also attracts moths.

Thus, modern mills remove lanolin from their yarns (mostly), and modern knitters use this as an excuse for not knitting warm garments.

The truth is that there are 2 aspects of knitting warm garments.  One is knitting tight, and the other is oiled yarn.  Except that there are many ways to get oiled yarn, baby oil works as well as lanolin but baby oil does not smell sheepy or attract moths.

That is, modern knitters use a lack of lanolin as an excuse to knit loosely.  And, they do not substitute other oils for lanolin. The result is that modern hand knit objects are not very warm.

Sunday, November 02, 2014


Read it at

Or, read a good summary at:  This is a better summary than put up by most of the news agencies - News agencies do not understand such things as well as Jeff Masters.