Category Archives: Fiber prep

Spinning silk hankies

When I purchased the silk hankies at the Shepherd’s Harvest show, the seller asked me if I knew how to use them. I wondered to myself, do people often buy things they don’t know how to spin? Well, if that’s the case, I thought I’d write up a little picture tutorial for spinning silk hankies.

Silk hankies are made by partially degumming the cocoons, opening them up to remove the bug, and spreading the fiber on a square frame. You can read more about the process here.

1. I have 1 dyed hankie draped over my hand – note that it is a very thick layer of cocoons, and you can barely see the outline of my fingers through the fiber.

2. The different layers are obvious at the edges. Grasp one layer and tease it away from the rest of the hankie.

3. Gently peel the layer away.

4. This is a single cocoon. It is transparent.

5. Make a small hole in the center of the hankie.

6. Widen the hole and stretch the hankie into a loop.

7. Begin pulling the fiber into a narrower strip and larger circle. The fiber will tear a little. This is normal. Nubs that don’t draft smoothly will show. This too is normal.

8. Draft in a continuous circle until the fiber forms a roving that is near or at the width of the desired yarn diameter (ie, no more drafting is needed, only need to add twist to make the final yarn).

9. I keep it in the closed loop stage until I finish drafting.

10. I break the loop (now it’s a long piece of pencil roving) and spin it onto a spindle.

And that’s it! Piece of cake! I haven’t timed myself, but I think it takes ~15 minutes to draft and spin 1 hankie. It’s a good break between timed chores (ie, 30 min of cleaning the kitchen, spin 1 hankie, 30 minutes of sorting and paying bills, spin 1 hankie, etc).

I’ve heard repeatedly that you can’t draft after you’ve begun spinning because the twist locks the fibers in place. I’m not sure if that’s always true. You can still draft – yes, you are breaking fibers, but you’re doing that during the entire drafting of the cocoon, anyway. It’s possible that it would be much harder to draft roving that results in a thick single, but I had no difficulty doing a little last-minute thinning of the roving while I was adding twist.


I guess I won’t be attending the local sheep and wool extravaganza – it will be too cold and wet for me. Alas. But it’s not like I don’t have enough to spin! Speaking of which, I never showed photos of the 2nd generation of platinum sock yarn to be. I was inspired by the flowers that meekly presented themselves in the past few weeks but opted to make the fiber a little less yellow and a little more green.

(Don’t laugh, this solitary flower is a pretty serious accomplishment for a black thumb gal like me.)

I blended superwash wool from JaggerSpun, the same folks who make Zephyr, with dyed silk. I dyed the wool before blending (no photos, sorry!) and carded the fibers together. I used a wallpaper brush to pack more fiber on the drum. I don’t usually aim for thick batts, but I was hoping to blend a little more efficiently. Final percentages – 75/25 wool/silk.

It’s been sitting in the box for weeks. Gotta do something about that…

I forgot to mention that Richard and Margaret took me to a May festival while I was in Virginia.

Although he’s not in the photo above, Margaret’s father is one of the “Revelers.” It was a lovely celebration to watch. For the final song, the performers held hands in a large circle around the maypole. As they sang, they began walking backwards and including the audience in the circle. Margaret, Richard, and I were standing a bit in the back, and as the circle neared, something interesting happened. The singers were looking over their shoulders to see if anyone else was behind them, smiling warmly and holding their hands out to us – and then Margaret stepped forward and Richard and I stepped backward. “Hmm,” R said, “There seem to be 2 types of reactions here.”

Combed alpaca

Cathy, Kim, and I had a sort of 3-way conversation about alpaca not too long ago, and Cathy sent a sample to help educate me about the goodness that is alpaca. Her fiber came from Bliss ranch. My 1 previous experience spinning alpaca was with combed top from Ashland Bay. It was kind of hard and somewhat wirey when I spun it into a 2-ply fingering weight yarn. I still have it somewhere, maybe I could beat it into submissive softness. Or maybe the fibers came from older animals, in which case beating is a lost cause.

Anyway, this was my first experience working with raw alpaca. It had a long staple (4″ or so) and medium crimp. I washed it 1x in hot water with a squirt of Dawn dish detergent (because raw fibers and my Drudik wheel do not mix), and it dried overnight. I turned the sample over after it was dry and noted a lot of dust and VM came out. Now I am horribly picky about VM – I hate it to the point that I am willing to pay many dollars to avoid it. Hm, what to do, what to do…First, I used Cathy’s suggestion of putting it in a mesh bag and tossing it in the dryer on air fluff for a while. It helped, but there were still a lot of crunchy bits in the fiber. Second, I combed it!

In the back is my green bottle of diluted hair conditioner (about 2 T of conditioner in a pint of water, shake to mix, spritz lashed fibers very lightly before combing). The combs are from here. I bought mine used, but even new, they are worth every penny.

Lash on, spritz, comb back and forth for 4 passes. I always think of Don King (really, how can you not?) when I comb fibers.

When I comb fiber with visible bits of dust and VM particles, I blow very gently with every swipe of the comb. If I see a noil or a speck of dust, I use my fingers (tweezers would probably be better) to pull it out. I do have a high percentage of waste (on the order of 33% or more), but I recomb all of the waste for 6 passes to bring the net loss down to about 20%.

Look how much stuff you can coax out with combs!

And look at what remained!

Optic blends

I attend a monthly spin-in at Creative Fibers in Minneapolis (scroll down to “Spinning with Shelley”), and at our December meeting, conversation included the idea of what happens when you blend colors that clash. I dyed a batch of superwash wool and silk (more sock yarn precursor) in the turkey roaster to play with that concept.

Because I like to kill as many birds as possible with a single stone… Er, because I prefer to conduct my pseudoscientific inquiries with a minimum amount of work, I also tested a blending technique. The coral batch was carefully blended in the initial carding, split into 12 batts, and recarded. For this batch, I blended rather coarsely, split batts only into 4 sections, and carded again before dyeing.

The last time I dyed, my tidy rows of red and yellow bled into each other and became mostly homogeneous. In email, a friend suggested I had too much water in the dyepot. That’s actually a common misconception – for vat dyeing, it’s hard to have too much. (You can occasionally have too little water, but thorough drowning of fiber doesn’t usually create problems.) In the red and yellow dye job, I didn’t have enough acid, and the colors migrated before I fixed them with additional citrate.

Because the pendulum always swings far, I added a few tablespoons of acid to my next dyebath, even though I’m still working with 4 oz batches of fiber. I sprinkled purple (at 2 concentrations), fuschia, and black dyes onto the fiber.


After the batts were dry, I split them lengthwise to show you the color range. You’re looking at the underside of the lower batt and the batt that was on the surface. See how quickly the dye sets when you have enough acid? I’m pretty sure I had the same volume of water in both dye experiments, the roaster was filled to the water mark from the previous batch. In addition, please note how coarsely the fibers are blended – the brighter streaks are silk.


I now had 1 batt full of strong colors that didn’t really look great together (sort of a goth colorway, isn’t it? It reminded me of Halloween costumes) and 1 batt that was mostly white. I split each into no more than 4 pieces per batt and carded again, repeated that 3 times more. The colors blended – softened the harshness, harmonized the colors, and got rid of the pure-silk streaks.

Socks to be
See how pretty?

Turned out nice, eh? Did you think this was going to happen? I like having black in the blend, otherwise the colors would have been pastel and Easter-like. When I was selecting colors, the principles of tints and shades (adding white or black to a color) were marinating in my mind. In hindsight, I realize now that it’s a tone (I added grey that was derived from blending black and white)! I can’t wait to see what this one looks like when it’s spun!

The coral batts that were oh-so-carefully carded are now all spun (let plying commence!), and I was disappointed by the irregular distribution of silk. For sure some stretches of the yarn were pure silk or pure wool. I suspect this one, with its 6 passes through the carder, will be better blended.

A dyein-in we will go

I am on the quest for the perfect sock yarn. Having knit and worn many socks, I have figured out what I feel are the most desirable factors for a successful sock yarn.

a) Must be fingering weight.
b) Must be machine washable.
c) Must be soft to touch.
d) Must have strong fiber.
e) Must be spun fairly tightly.

After making a thick pair of slipper-socks, I definitely prefer socks that can fit into my regular shoes. Lord knows I don’t have the time to handwash socks, especially since I wear 5-7 pair a week. (I toss mine in a lingerie bag, machine wash, and hang to dry.) My skin is somewhat sensitive to prickles, and I’m much happier with socks that don’t constantly remind me of their presence. I hate darning or dealing with ripped socks, and the best sock yarns I’ve used have always had some kind of reinforcing fiber (like nylon) in them. The spun tightly thing is somewhat debatable for me – I suspect a looser-spun 3-ply would wear quite well, maybe even better than a tightly spun 2-ply yarn. Lastly, I prefer socks to be colorful, too!

I realized a long time ago that sock yarns are the perfect project for color experimentation. One only needs 4 oz of fiber (often less) to make a pair of adult socks, and that amount is large enough to do some serious colorwork and small enough to spin up in a reasonable amount of time and not go nuts or get bored. I think this is a nice way to sample colorways, find out how the colors interact with each other, etc. without committing to a large project or a striped sweater. Another plus – even the most conservative knitter will make a pair of wildy colored socks and LIKE THEM.

After hearing too many people rave about the turkey roaster as dye pot, I caved and bought one at WalMart. A hearty “Thank you!” to Cathy, who suggested that I dye in the laundry room instead of the kitchen. Why didn’t I think of that?


I carded white superwash superfine Merino and tussah silk in a 75/25 ratio. For those who don’t know, I have a doublewide motorized Strauch/Fricke Finest carder with the 128 ppi cloth. I love it. Anyway, for this batch, I was slow and meticulous about blending. I carded batts that were about 2 oz, split them into at least 12 smaller batts and recarded each one thoroughly. One of the lovely aspects of carding commercially prepared top – the crimp has been ironed out of it somehow, it does not succumb to noils even after repeated carding. Eventually, I thought the silk was distributed evenly and brought it to the roaster.

Love the billows of fiber! I adore the silky shine!

I wanted cheerful colors to banish thoughts of the dull grey winter sky, and I selected “Ripe Tomato” and “Maize Yellow” from my collection of dyes. (Even the color names evoke thoughts of summer!) The dyes in this batch are “One-shot” dyes that have acid already mixed in. I sprinkled dye in stripes and poked at powder piles with a chopstick to help them dissolve.


Yellow is usually subordinate to any other color in a shared dyepot, and I expected the fiber to turn out mostly red with a little orange. Ripe Tomato turned out to be Fairly Fuschia in real life, but it wasn’t an unpleasant color. I cooked it at 185 F for a half hour or more, but the red did not exhaust, it just migrated and turned most of the wool reddish orange.


I sprinkled in some citrate, probably about 2 tablespoons, lifted and submerged the fiber via the rack to dissolve the citrate, and cooked it a little longer. After another 30 min. or so, the dyebath liquor had just a faintly pink tint. I let it cool to room temp, rinsed, spun in the washer, and let it dry.

So pretty! The final color is a gorgeous coral – pinky orange that gets paler with silk and darker with wool. The batts also have darker red blops and a few lighter orange areas. Defintely nothing on the batt is plain yellow. I could hardly wait till the fiber was ready to spin. I’m tearing strips off each batt, alternating batts, and spinning to make a 2-ply yarn. I did a good job blending the fiber, and the color varigations are cool.

Color blending

A long time ago, I painted this:

Silk top

I was not impressed with my handpainting skills or my choice of colors. I spun a little bit of it and put it away. Months passed.

In October, I was playing with my carder and thought I’d put some of that silk through it to see if blending could make it a prettier color. I predicted some shade of purple.

1 pass
One pass through the carder

The above color reminded me of veiny anatomy textbook illustrations. I thought I’d send the silk through the carder again.

2 pass

The colors muddied a little, which was expected, but – hey – mauve! Not bad!

I bet it’d look better if it were blended with wool of a different color… but what color? Something else in the purplish category? Something neutral (white, grey, black)? What do you think?


In Terry Gross’s All I Did Was Ask, she opens the interview of writer Mary Karr with a brief comment on memoirs in general. She writes, “My motto has become a line spoken by Dennis Hopper in the movie Search and Destroy: ‘Just because it happened to you doesn’t make it interesting.’ ”

Ever since I read it, the quote jumps to my mind whenever I start composing a new ‘blog entry.

I was so pleased with the results of my hydrangea-inspired dye job that I was a little reluctant to card the mess together into something spinnable. What if it got neppy in the carder? What if the colors didn’t blend well? What proportions should I use for each color? Well, no more tiptoeing around, I bit the bullet this morning.

Each tuft of wool was opened up carefully by hand to “unlock” the tips and butt, I removed the few bits of 2nd cuts and vm that I found. The angora was teased into a translucent waft of fiber. I carded layers of each color (everything except the pale yellow green), pulled batts off, and carded each batt 2x. With the second carding, I added a dusting of Angelina fibers. I peeled small sections of each batt off, one at a time, to make mini roving bundles.

Here are some of the finished batts (about 4.5 oz in total, and I did not use all of the dyed fibers).


Have you ever worked with Angelina before? It is an amazing fiber. It appeals to the magpie in me. The closest way I can describe it is if Tinkerbell tapped her wand over the batts and left little colored sparklies everywhere. Because it is so thin, it won’t make the yarn scratchy. I regret that you can’t see the sparkles in the batts, it is too gloomy outside, and the flash washed the colors out of the fiber.

Color blending is an art form where I have sadly little experience. One of Deb Menz’s principles that she mentions in her dyeing books is mixing color values in a single yarn to give it a greater complexity. With that in mind, I blended pale shades of blue and lavendar angora and wool with a medium green wool and a dark purple wool. I didn’t want to overblend and make it a homogeneous bluish-purplish-greenish-sparkly-halo yarn, I wanted distinct regions of colors. There are proportionally more dark colors than light in these batts, and I can’t decide whether that was a good thing to do.

Another thing about color blending – you don’t quite know how colors interact with each other when you are looking at groupings of solid blobs. When I started blending, I found the light purple angora began to look grey when superimposed onto dark colors. The yellow overtones in the green seemed to clash with the purple.

Overall, I’m not sure what I think of the results. Doubtless my opinions will morph again after it is spun. At least the batts are wonderfully soft. They should turn into really nice yarn, even if the colors aren’t quite right.

Washer woman

I spent most of yesterday washing the Corriedale fleece I purchased last week. I’m not sure of the weight yet, it’s still too damp to get an accurate measure, but I’m guessing it is ~ 3 1/2 lbs of clean wool. Not sure what I’ll do with this batch just yet, but I do have a huge Earthues sampler that I’d like to try out. Dyeing with those dyes are a 2-step process (mordant the first day, dye the second), so it’s probably too late to try it this weekend.

My washing set up is suboptimal right now because I need to wash fleece in the kitchen (better to not carry large pots of boiling water too far), but the washing machine to spin out the water is upstairs. I’ll get one of those Spin-X devices of my own someday, maybe Christmas…? But for now, it’s a lot of running up and down to wash wool, and my thighs and calves are a little achey today. Ah, wait – I even know the medical term for that now. Myalgia. Muscle pain. See, I’m learning new vocabulary words at this medical editing gig! (I’ve also learned that “diaphoresis” is the way you describe a patient who is really sweaty.)

Table of fleece

It cleaned up pretty well, though some of the tips will need flicking. There’s a very fine silt sort of scattered throughout the wool, but I think the normal processes of preparing the wool for spinning will remove most of it.

One lock

A Full Day

We were vaguely discussing “What is heaven?” on one of the mailing lists I’m on, and I was amused to find that one person’s description of heaven (“to be alone, with nothing particular to do, for hours on end”) was mostly my description of hell. I like to cram as much as possible into each day, and I really enjoy feeling “full” (in the life-sense, not the belly-sense) when I go to bed.

I picked up Elaine’s Spin-X centrifuge dryer yesterday morning after breezing through Whole Foods. (Note to self – WF is not ridiculously crowded on Saturdays before 10 AM. It’s still busy but not painfully slow.) Anyway, I recently bought a covered Romney, a whopping 7 pound fleece, and I was holding off washing it until I could get my mitts on the Spin-X. That thing is amazing. I covet it mightily. Look how much fleece I could wash in one afternoon!

Don’t let the lack of depth in the photo fool you. I have covered 7/8 of a large dining table (seating capacity of 6) with several inches of wool. What’s even better – the Spin-X got so much of the water out, it’ll be dry within 24 hours. With my washing machine spin cycle, this amount of fleece usually needs upward of 2 days to dry, even in the winter.

While I was doing the wool washing, I wrote the last few thank you notes to guests who had come to our wedding. They’re finished! Thank God! Now my mom and I can both rest a little easier at night, eh?

I’ve also been remiss in not showing pictures of a nearly completed project. I started the Elizabeth sweater (1st picture at the top of the page) sans beads late last winter. (Prev. entries are here and here.) I set it aside with all of the wedding hullaballoo. Now that the commotion has come and gone, I was ready to start it up again. I knit the entire upper back, found I’d followed the directions for the wrong size, ripped it out again (ripping Kid Silk Haze, a fuzzy stitch-interlocking yarn, is HARD), started reknitting, realized I had in fact made it the right way the first time (ARGH!), and then finished both halves of the bodice without any further incidents. I hope. I haven’t actually tried it on to find out if I’ve done something else wrong because, quite frankly, I’m afraid to find out. Here’s what we have so far:

Ready for a seaming party

Let’s see, what’s next… I picked up a most wonderful container of “Organic Red Flame Raisins” from Whole Foods. These are clearly the biggest (~1 cm long!) and most luscious raisins I’ve ever seen in my life. After I tried a mouthful, I knew I had to make oatmeal raisin cookies. Looooove oatmeal raisin cookies. Recipe is here. The fine people at the Quaker Oats Comapny categorize this as a “lower fat” recipe on the web page. TWO sticks of butter is lower fat… Bwahahahaha… Oh, but they are good.

I made a nice dinner last night, too. I roasted a small chicken with lemon slices and herbes de Provence (recipe here), and it was served with a side of smashed potatoes (recipe in a recent Cook’s Illustrated) and sauteed green beans.

The potatoes are easy to fix – 2 lbs of small red bliss potatoes, scrubbed and boiled until they are soft. (Matt likes garlic with his potatoes, and I threw in about 5 chopped cloves to simmer at the same time.) Drain, reserving 1/2 c of liquid. Crush the potatoes with a wooden spoon. Mix 4 T of butter (I used 2) and 4 oz of cream cheese (I used neufchatel) until smooth, then stir that into the potatoes. Add reserved potato water as needed to the right consistency (I never use the entire 1/2 c), and add salt and pepper to taste.

The green beans are even easier. Don’t start these until the chicken is out of the oven – it needs a bit of resting time to get the juices back into the flesh. Prep green beans to 1 inch pieces. Saute in olive oil and crushed garlic (I used 2 cloves on approximately 1/2 a pound of beans), squeeze a few lemon slices (extra slices leftover from the lemon I put in the roast chicken). Add a little bit of water as needed, cook until desired tenderness.

In between all of those comings and goings, I cleaned the entire first floor of the house, scrubbed the bathroom, sorted the mail and paid the bills, carded a bunch of cotton punis (photos later), and was so exhausted by 9:30, I couldn’t even stay awake long enough to peruse the latest Pottery Barn catalog. Ah, what a great day!

James says, “Don’t be fooled. Sleeping all day is great, too.”

Spindle Spinning Polwarth

I had a great day today. My still-new-to-me job was not going very well until this week. My first task was to generate a knockout mutant (a fairly routine procedure when working with yeast), and it was just eluding me for these last two months. I finally got the darn thing over the weekend, and I've completed running a series of tests today to verify that it is truly what I wanted. I feel terrific!

Claudia mentioned that she doesn't "get" the concept behind Productive Spinners. I guess I made it sound like Nancy was guilting me to make progress, and that's not at all true. Any guilt is my own doing!

I enjoy the PS list for several reasons (although, upon rereading, I see I'm having a hard time explaining it). Rather than prodding us about our projects, Listmom Nancy has given me a sense of accountability about what I set out to do. I chose to make the sweater, I chose to list it as an official PS project, and I set my semi-weekly goals any way I please. While the actual knitting of this sweater is somewhat of a drag, I like seeing the progress and intend to finish and wear it sooner or later. By setting small, stepwise goals, I have made a significant amount of progress on achieving my overall goal of knitting my first Fair Isle garment. I like reading the progress reports of all of the list members, too, and seeing photos of the finished projects that I've been hearing about for weeks or months is inspiring. Moreover, Nancy is a tireless cheerleader and near-singlehandedlly creates a wonderful, positive atmosphere on the list.

Also, if any PS project becomes TRULY unbearable, I am allowed to remove it from the list of official projects. Stinky Jake is a perfect example of a PS project that really went down the toilet. I must also add that I work on other projects in addition to PS projects. I do wish I was one of those one-project-only people, but I could never quite get the hang of <i>that</i>. I'm now one of these three-big-projects-and-three-or-four-smaller-projects people! Heh. In any case, I encourage anyone who is interested to check out the list and see if it helps you.

Here's the progress photo of my Polwarth spindling. Details about this project can be found here. I've barely made a dent in the unprocessed fleece. It filled a small Rubbermaid storage bin when I started, and at a glance, it hasn't diminished a bit.

Delicious, naturally colored wool

I seem to have misplaced my fiber combing water spritzer. It's here somewhere, but where? I tried combing 8 g of fiber tonight on mini combs without wetting the fiber at all. What a disaster that was! I managed to put 4 or 5 g on the spindle, but I was really fighting it the entire time.