It was bound to happen, that after spending so much time around people who spin and knit, I would finally give in and try it myself. Under the generous but firm tutelage of Penny and Karen, I dove directly into the deep end of the wool pool, buying an entire, unwashed sheep fleece from a small farm in the Fraser Valley, with the dogged determination to create a wearable garment from scratch.
Karen and I made the trip out to Langley, where we met the small flock of Clun Forest Sheep who kindly donated their coats to us for a modest fee. Armed with an economy sized bottle of dish-washing liquid, I set about my first task of cleaning the fleece.
A strong but not unpleasant “sheepy” smell was soon wafting through my house, as fleece met hot water and the heavy coating of lanolin and grime was gradually dissolved. The dirtiest parts of the wool were separated and left to soak in what would later become a bucket of unfathomably horrific odors.
After drying, the fleece resembled a small cumulus cloud, hovering cheerfully in my front room, oblivious to the torments I would soon inflict on it. The carding process forcibly combs the fibers into alignment and transforms the amorphous fleece into an orderly pile of “rolags”. From there the spinning process begins, something I have found both enjoyable and contemplative.
Partway through this process, I learned that I needed to ply my yarn, meaning twisting two spun lengths together to create a thick grade of yarn which is more stable to knit with than a “single”. My skill level at spinning has gradually increased and I am beginning to be able to produce a much thinner, even yarn. Interesting how this activity has been linked in several world cultures to the notion of fate or destiny. Metaphorically, threads and string are powerful images.
The natural dying process has been fascinating. I was enthralled by some wool that Joy had dyed using the root of a walnut tree to produce a rich brown. Later, I found out that all parts of the Black Walnut are rich in natural dye, and that October is the time to gather the nut casings as they fall from the tree. Sharon told me the location of some trees in the West End and I have now made several trips to fill my saddle bags with them. I found out quickly to wear gloves as they will dye skin readily, which doesn’t wash off for several days.
For days now, I’ve had a pot of walnuts on the stove, and more in the basement soaking. The smell is strong and reminiscent of fermented lime, which has helped to finally dispel the essence of sheep lingering in my house. The colour is powerful and varied. I’ve obtained rich gold, mahogany and dark chocolate browns, as well as some subtler shades of grey, using an iron railroad spike to “sadden” the colours.
At the rate I’m going, this sweater might not be ready until sometime next year. Penny calculated that I would need around a thousand yards of yarn to complete this project. I’m at around two hundred at this point and am considering changing the size of my yarn in order to cut down on the amount of wool needed. Penny has taught me to knit the two basic stitches, so in my down time, I’m practicing with some scraps of donated orange wool and a bag of vile-coloured yarn I got from Value Village.
Stay tuned for part two.