Posted by: Leslie | October 16, 2007

official Blog Action Day post

For Blog Action Day, I thought I’d write a bit about why I’m moving further away from commercially-prepped roving and spinning fibre. When I started spinning my own yarn, I’d never worked with raw fleece straight off the sheep’s (or alpaca’s, or goat’s, etc.) back. As I was just trying to get the hang of coaxing a mass of unruly fibres form something that vaguely resembled yarn, the thought of washing, combing, and carding a fleece beforehand was too much.

As I’ve become a more accomplished spinner, however, I’ve also become more aware of the processes involved in turning that raw greasy fleece into roving. A few workshops with spinners like the incomparable Claire Walker taught me how handspinners traditionally process fleeces, but I’ve also learned (mostly from my own digging online and in textile publications) about how the roving you’ll find in a yarn shop (as well as all that yarn) gets made. It’s generally not a very environmentally conscious endeavour: sheep are raised in large, overcrowded lots and prophylactically treated with antibiotics and other medications (these sheep are more susceptible to diseases and parasites because of the unhealthy conditions they live in); the wool is often bought from farmers for a few pennies per pound (particularly when the sheep are primarily being raised for meat rather than wool); and the wool is treated with caustic chemicals so as to dissolve vegetable matter, eliminate lanolin, and change the natural colour.

A bit more about carbonising, which is the process whereby plant particles lodged in the wool fibres are removed: the wool is “washed” in baths of sulphuric or hydrochloric acid, which modifies the chemical bonds in the plant material. When the wool is placed into an oven and heated, the altered plant matter turns to ash which flies into the air when the wool is carded later on. The problem is that those acids are both dangerous to work with and a hazard to the environment (if they are not disposed of properly), while the airborne ash poses a potential threat to wool workers. Furthermore, carbonising process can weaken wool and make it less soft and resilient. More dangerous substances in the process come in the form of bleaches and dyes, many of which are known carcinogens.

Not a very green, or appealing picture, at least to me. And so I’ve been doing more and more of my own wool processing at home, with the following benefits in mind:

No caustic chemicals – I remove lanolin using soap and very hot water. Vegetable matter I pick out while combing or even as I’m spinning, though I’m careful only to buy fleeces that are relatively free of plant material. No carbonising agents or dyes also means the wool stays as soft and elastic as possible.

I know where my wool comes from – By choosing to buy only from small-scale, sustainably-run farms, I know the sheep that produced the wool had a good quality of life, and the environment impact is much less than if the wool had been produced in large, crowded lots.

I’m paying a fair price – Everyone likes a deal, but I like knowing that the farmers who raised the wool are getting paid decently for their work.

The beauty of natural colours – One of the things I love about wool is the array of colours that are seen right on the sheep. Bright vivid colours are nice for some things, but I’m more drawn to the creams, fawns, and charcoals produced by nature.

I can do what I want, right from the startMost commercial roving is densely packed and requires a lot of thinning and pre-drafting in order to spin a smooth, even yarn. Pre-drafting is one of my least favourite parts of spinning, and I’d rather avoid it by doing my own carding and combing to produce rolags or top that are ready to spin.

Even though it’s a lot more work, I’ve come to really enjoy preparing raw fleeces for spinning, and it’s made me become more aware about the origins of the materials I work with. Coming up will be a series of posts on just how I process wool, from raw fleece to yarn. Keep an eye out for that!

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Responses

  1. Interesting–I didn’t know much about carbonization, and I’m looking forward to reading about your green fiber prep!

  2. What a great post – Thank you for sharing this!! I have two fleeces from local farmers waiting to be washed right now, one alpaca and one shetland. I have to admit to being a little intimidated by the prep work, but it’s really important to me to work through the whole process myself, at least a couple of times. I feel that even if I decide that it’s not something I want to do on a regular basis (who knows, I may love it!), I will at least have a better understanding of the process and can make educated decisions about where I purchase my fiber be able to ask pertinent questions about where and how it was processed.

    I can’t wait to read your posts about fiber prep 🙂 I’m hoping to rent or borrow a set of combs and cards from someone in my local guild so that I can get started with my fleeces – I’ll look forward to your tips and hopefully be able to follow along!

  3. What a fantastic post!

    I’ve been processing a bunch of raw fleece that I bought at the Common Ground Festival here in Maine. It came from a sheep on Nash Island (http://www.starcroftfiber.com/nashisland.html).

    I’ve been processing it myself using hot water and soap, and the very strict instructions from Alden Amos’s Big Book of Handspinning.

    I’ve been surprised (although I don’t know why…) at how gratifying it is to card my fleece into rolags and at how wonderfully it spins up.

    We should trade some fiber!!!

  4. Amen, sister!

    My mom has been running her small spinning business, Starcroft Fiber Mill for the past ten years with the same kind of ethos.

    I’m glad to hear there are spinners out there who love working with a natural, locally-grown fiber as much as we do.


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