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Wales, United Kingdom
Documenting one couple's attempts to live a more self-sufficient life.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Playing with plant fibre

I enjoy spinning and live in an area full of sheep. I could easily get hold of a fleece, so what's stopping me? Well, fleeces don't come off the sheep ready to spin, they need washing and carding first. I don't have the tools for carding, which is a fairly major obstacle, but the washing puts me off almost as much.

Wet wool is heavy and hard work to handle, and there's a big risk of felting while washing. Then I'd have to dry it afterwards, which in this climate is a serious challenge. All in all, I'm not greatly enthused about the prospect of preparing fleece for spinning.

On the other hand, there are fibres around that look a lot more attractive.

Rosebay willowherb has spectacular flowers and spreads its seeds on the wind with little downy parachutes. As the seed pods open in the sun, bundles of fluff are released.

It's this fluff that attracts me. It's so beautiful! By way of experiment, I gathered a few pods full of fluff. It was so soft that I couldn't even feel it on my hands.

It wasn't too difficult to pick the pieces of pod out of the fibre, apart from the gravity-defying property of the little parachutes. I'd be trying to put fluff down in a pile, and little bits of it would detach themselves and float up past my face.

After a while, though, I managed to get a bundle of fluff without bits of seed pod stuck in it, though I didn't manage to remove all the seeds.

Ideally, at this point, I'd card the fluff, which would not only line up all the fibres in the same direction, but hopefully also comb out the remaining seeds. As I said above, I don't have carders, but I found that by pulling the bundle apart with my fingers, the fibres aligned themselves quite nicely.

The big question, of course, is whether it would be possible to spin this fibre? One critical factor is staple length, i.e. the length of individual fibres. I tried to look up the typical staple length of wool, for comparison, but it turns out that this question is rather like, How long is a piece of string? Anyway, it's upwards of two inches (50 mm).

A more sensible comparison, perhaps, is cotton, as that also comes from seed heads. There is considerable variation here, too, but it seems to range from about half an inch to about one and a half inches (13-38 mm). I measured a little clump of fibres, and it was about half an inch long. That's right at the bottom end of the range for cotton, which is considered poor quality, but perhaps it's just about long enough to be feasible.

Having concluded that theoretically, it should be possible (just) to spin this, I decided to try a bit. Not with the wheel, as I'd need a larger quantity for that. I just teased out a bit and twisted it with my fingers to see whether I could persuade it to form a thread.

Yes. Yes, I could get a thread, of sorts. It's not at all strong, but then it is very fine. I don't think I'd be aiming for such a fine thread, so with more fibres running together, hopefully it would be a bit stronger. It would probably be better if I had the right tools, too.

This brings me back to the question of carders, which is a bit of a sticking point as they're expensive. Like, fifty quid expensive. That feels like a lot of money for something that might not work. Furthermore, not all carders are alike. The ones for cotton are much finer (more teeth per inch) than the ones for wool. If my daft idea of spinning willowherb fibre didn't work out, I'd have an expensive set of carders and no use for them. I'm not sure what to do now: Do I risk the money on something that may turn out to be useless?


  1. Ha! I have often thought that with the amount of fur my cats shed, I could easily spin it into yarn and make a cat fur sweater. Of course, it would be an allergic nightmare, but it could work.

    Speaking of cats, I had a friend once who was into carding wool, and the carders that she had looked for all the world like the brushes I use for my cats. I believe they're called "slicker brushes" and they're really cheap. Perhaps you could try some cheap pet brushes for starters and see if it would work well enough to determine if investing in the real thing was worth it or not?

    1. When I went to a spinning class, one of the first things the teacher said was, "Don't ask me about spinning pet fur." I think the reason is that dog and cat fur is not as clingy as sheep's wool - the hairs just slide over each other and don't hang together very well at all.

      Cat brushes - there's an idea... Some research later: Apparently they're OK for carding wool, in spite of having wider spaced teeth than carders. I'm looking for closer spaced teeth, so I'm not sure these would be any good. I'd have to have a look at them and see if they looked like they'd be fine enough to grab the very fine fluff I've got.

      I meant to answer your question about Hinterland: Yes, there will be one more series. They finished filming a few weeks ago.

    2. Yay on Hinterland! And I can't believe cat hair isn't "clingy" enough since it sticks to EVERYTHING! :-)

  2. I was going to say the small ones for pets could do you for a start, is there not a local spinning group that could help you with carding, I was put off washing a sheep fleece then i read about the Sunit Fermenting method for cleaning a sheep fleece, tried it last year and it was really easy.

    1. You'd have thought there'd be a local spinning group round here, wouldn't you? I haven't come across one, though. At least, not within twenty miles or so. Sunit Fermenting? That sounds interesting. I'll have to look into that, thanks.

  3. Just so you know, washing fleece doesn't have to be such an arduous task. You don't have to wash the fleece in one lot. I use some cheap bu keys I picked up in Asda. One for hot soapy water and three for hot clean water. Grab a section of fleece, dump anything that's too dirty (usually round the edges) and dunk in the hot, soapy water. Don't swish it or anything, just push it under so it's all wet. Leave for a short soak then pull out and into the rinses. I have even done fleece by the handful in my kitchen sink in the wintertime. The drying takes longer but it's not terrible. Animal brushes work great as a test to see if it's worth buying the real deal.

    1. Thanks for the tips and encouragement about washing fleece. I'll probably get back to it at some point. It's good to know that it's not as bad as I imagine.


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