Merino Learning Exchange

I am participating in HGA's Learning Exchange program to see what it is about. Everybody in the group spins one or more yarns and makes a set of samples to share. The group leader comments on each yarn and the participants get all the comments and a complete set of samples. The subject of my exchange is Merino fleece.

My first exchange yarn is a 4-ply woolen. The fiber is carded and then spun with the unsupported long draw technique. Merino is often short, and the conventional wisdom says short fibers are carded. But the "spin to the crimp" school says that the twists should match the crimps, or if a fiber has 5 crimps per cm, then the yarn should have 5 twists per cm. Merino has a very fine crimp structure, so that would indicate a lot of twist (and a fine yarn.) Woolen is the exact opposite of a lot of twist: soft, fuzzy and full of air.

I have never been happy with how fine, crimpy fleeces draft with long draw. No matter how much I try, it's always lumpy and varies wildly in diameter. The fiber drafts in clumps no matter what I do and practice results in no improvement.

I started with some short Merino I found on a trip to the wilds of Vermont. Yes, really, we were driving down a rural highway and I saw a sign that said "Merino." I made my sister turn around. It was Round Barn Merinos, a small farm. The owner has a shop and sells yarn and knitwear. She wasn't set up to sell fleece, but I wanted to experiment with American Merino. So we trooped out to the barn in the snow and opened up some bags and I bought a little to take home, a grayish brown that varies from tan to chocolate. It's a commercial fleece meant for a mill, so I got a lot of what handspinners would consider skirtings. And it was filthy. The rest was long enough to comb, so I sorted out the short parts (6-7 cm or so) and started flicking it without having a plan in mind.

So, some years later... I took the flicked fiber and hand carded it into a bin of rolags. I spun four bobbins of moderately fine single with enough twist to hold it together and just a little bit more. I tried to keep the yarn even, but I didn't fight the fiber and I certainly wasn't going to stop every length to fix every last slub. I'm not doing that ever again. Woolen is supposed to be fuzzy and I'm convinced that any expectation of perfectly even yarn is the misguided application of industrial processing to handcraft. I don't have a big machine that is exactly designed to make perfect skinny roving ready to spin with minimal drafting. All the pictures I see of spinners demonstrating long draw have slubs in their wool, too. And fine, crimpy fiber is only worse.

I did a balanced 4-ply and then washed it in in the sink. I was none too gentle because I wanted it to felt some, and it shrunk about 15% in length. It was a pain to unwind the skein because the yarn had felted to itself in many places, despite all the stories I've heard about how short fibers mysteriously don't felt together into an ugly blob as yarn. It wasn't horrible, but it was no fun getting apart either.

The finished yarn is fuzzy and soft and something like a chunky weight in size. The 4-ply evened out the diameter but the varied colors are still visible. In places where the single had more twist (thinner spots) you can see it clearly, but thicker, lower twist places have blended to an overall blur.

The second yarn is a 3-ply with different commercial Merino tops in each ply. Two are standard colors from Ashland Bay. The white is typical Australian Merino, a little finer and longer staple than the others. I space-dyed it bright and pale pink by changing the dilution of the dye before I squirted it on. I did some samples with a bit of dyed Merino/Tencel but I didn't have enough left to do all the necessary yarn. In the interest of not buying any more fiber (a secondary goal for this project) I pulled out stuff I already had and dyed it. I conveniently had a jar of Country Classics Very Hot Pink dye, from a failed attempt at learning to appreciate non-sheep color fiber. It's so much not a sheep color that the yarn is impossible to photograph correctly with a digital camera.

The fibers are pretty standard stuff, Merino top is available all over the place. I wanted to play with using the space-dyed top without it coming out looking like a tye-dye nightmare. Since Merino fibers are fairly short, to get this medium-sized single I put in as much twist as it would hold without completely getting snarled. There were a few little corkscrews on the bobbin, but it all worked out in the plying. My first attempt used a much finer single and the color changes completely vanished. This yarn will probably pill a little, but all that twist in there will help keep it down.

There is nothing particularly special about the spinning, it's basic short draw worsted. I stripped the top into fourths and pulled it out thinner before spinning. Washing the yarn did nothing but rinse out a little remaining dye, worsteds don't do much unless you really abuse them. The finished yarn is similar to a commercial "worsted" in size. I normally spin from fleece rather than mill processed fiber, but since Merino top is available in such a large range of colors and handpainted designs I wanted to explore what can be done with it.