More Battiness

Going on to part two of my Batt Experiments.  In my last post I discussed the technique of making a layered batt, then tearing it into strips and putting the strips back through the drum carder on edge to make a striped batt.  I then removed the batt as a roving by pulling it through a diz, going back and forth across the width of the carder.  I showed the resulting roving, and the resulting singles on the bobbin, and talked about how they didn’t turn out the way I’d expected due to some unwise fiber choices.

batts-0920165411This is part two, where I kept the batt in layers, tried to maintain a little more control over the bamboo by applying it directly to the drum rather than going through the feed tray, and again removing the batt as a roving by pulling it off through a diz, going back and forth across the width of the carder.

layersAs with the striped batt, the roving came off looking more-or-less the way I’d expected it to. When you diz off a striped batt, you should get all the colors in all the layers distributed fairly evenly along the roving. Theoretically, this should give you a single that also has all the colors in all the layers distributed evenly along the length of the single.

layers-bobbin-0929165476Again, as with the striped batt, the bamboo bit me in the posterior. The slipperiness and tendency to clump together made the bamboo draft in long sections.  This time I ended up with a single that had blue and magenta segments interspersed with mostly white bamboo segments.

The final results of this round:  Even though the dizzed rovings from each batt looked the way I expected them to, the fiber choice impacted the way the rovings drafted to the extent that the appearance of the singles was almost opposite of what I had expected.

Lesson learned: When trying to apply anything like a scientific method, do a better job of controlling the variables!


When I first learned to spin nearly 20 years ago, “painted roving” was the New and Exciting thing. The barrier to entry for indie dyers is pretty low – combed top and acid dyes are easy to get, it can be done in a small space, and there are numerous books, magazine articles, and tutorials about the various ways it can be done. These days braids of painted top are one the most prevalent forms of ready-to-spin fiber preps.

Enter the blending board! Here was a tool that was much less expensive than a drum carder, and didn’t have the learning curve of hand cards. People realized that they could use this tool to plan placement of color and texture in a carded prep. Batts and rolags were no longer expected to be a mostly-homogeneous blend, nor were they limited to stripes. The intersection of these ideas with the rising popularity of Art Yarn has made artfully blended batts A Thing with spinners buying RTS preps.

In an effort to be at least somewhat on-trend, as well as to take advantage of recent fleece acquisitions, I’m trying to get out of my comfort zone and figure out the New Batt.  Homogeneous blends I can do -have been doing for years. Ombrés? Not so much. I have little interest in themed Art Batts – they’re fascinating and beautiful, but I admit the idea of trying to spin them makes my skin crawl. For all that I admire a well-executed Art Yarn, I’m a smooth-or-minimally-textured-yarn gal. Different ways of blending colors and fibers, however, I can do. I am on a quest for different structures and fiber blends, spinning them up, and seeing what happens.

I’ve discovered that it’s harder than you’d think to find 201 or 301-level information on this subject. Everything I’ve found has been for beginners. I’m looking for recipes, not “how to cook.” In desperation I bought Esther Rodgers’ Craftsy class on Fiber Processing, hoping she would go into the details I was looking for, and I found some of what I wanted – I just wish I hadn’t had to pay for a class that was 95% stuff I already knew so that I could get to the 5% I didn’t. There were also subjects I wish she’d discussed that she didn’t, but I’ll get into that another time.

I’m currently exploring striped and layered batts, dizzing the batts back and forth off the drum into a roving, and seeing what the resulting yarn looks like. One of the ways to get a striped batt is to make a layered bat, split it, then run the sections back through the drum carder sideways. I first tried this with the Cheviot X fleeces I’ve been washing, but I didn’t think to take photos, and the colors were too dark to really show the results well online. I decided to repeat the experiment with more contrast.

batts-0920165407Here is my layered batt, using equal amounts of magenta and blue Merino top, and white bamboo rayon. This fiber combination turned out to be a bad choice for this experiment, as you will see later. Among other things, I determined that yes, bamboo is one of those types of fiber that is best applied directly to the drum rather than via the licker-in and the feeder tray. It’s so slick that the main drum doesn’t want to pick it up, it all gets stuck around the licker-in, and you have to then persuade it to go where you want.

batts-0920165408Here you can see the batt section turned on its side, the three colors forming stripes. You can also see how the slipperiness of the bamboo is causing a great deal of separation in that middle layer, and will end up being a bit of a PITA as I try to keep the stripes discernable.

batts-0920165409The resulting striped batt on the carder, with significant blending between the colors, mostly due to the slipperiness of the bamboo.

stripesWhen a striped batt is dizzed off the drum carder, you’re supposed to end up with a roving that transitions through the colors in the stripes one at a time, with some blending between. That’s mostly what I got – you can see large areas of mostly-magenta, mostly-blue, and mostly-white. Again, the slipperiness and density of the bamboo caused it to blend more with the other colors, so that there are nice puffy Merino stripes, but the bamboo sections still have a significant amount of the other two colors visible.

stripes-bobbin-0929165475This is what the singles look like on the bobbin. The sections of blue and magenta are very distinct, but the white of the bamboo has almost thoroughly blended into them, leaving nothing that is mostly white.

Next time I’ll post my experiment with this same fiber combination making a layered batt, and show how that turned out.




Crockpot Dyeing

I spent a good part of the summer figuring out ways to dye wool in my crockpot.   I know that the oven dyeing method that I have been using will allow me to dye more wool at once, so there is more efficiency in terms of scale, but it takes a great deal more space and it means that no one else can use the oven while I’m dyeing wool.  Because I need to schedule my dyeing around when other people want to use the oven, I am able to do it less frequently.  With the crockpot I can only do about 4 ounces of wool at a time, but the only space I’m using is the tiny footprint that the crockpot takes up on the counter.  I can dye much more frequently, so the result is a higher level of production.   It’s one of those “slower by the hour, but faster by the week” things, like spindle spinning versus wheel spinning.


I documented a lot of these experiments on my Facebook page this summer. I figured it was time to get some of them written up into a more sensible format as blog posts.

In essence this is a form of low water immersion dyeing. The unpredictable results are one of the features of this dyeing method.  When I dye in trays I lay the tops out in neat rows and can apply the dye very precisely exactly where I want it. When I dye in the crockpot I need to be able to fit the wool in one layer at the bottom of the crockpot. To do this, I pack the top into the bottom of the crockpot by pleating it.

This acts as a natural resist and prevents the dye from reaching all the way down to the bottom or inside the folds in some places. I can control this effect to a degree by how much liquid is in the crockpot.

I choose colors that I know will create something reasonably attractive in the finished product, and instead of mixing all of the colors of dye together for one solid color I sprinkle them randomly over the surface of the wool so that individual colors stand out and combine in different ways. If I want more dye penetration and less white space, I add more water to the crockpot.

Yarn that is spun from tops dyed with this random crockpot dyeing method still have some variation in color, but the transitions between colors are much smoother and more gradual with little to no striping.

Individual spots of color that blend together as fibers in the yarn give the impression of a solid color due to optical blending while at the same time giving greater visual depth to the yarn.

So what’s the deal with this handspinning thing? Part 1: Wool

I recently had a conversation with my father about my new Etsy shop, AliCat Fiberarts, where I’ve started selling my handspun yarn and hand dyed wool for spinning.  He was wondering about the market for such products.  He wasn’t being critical – just curious.  It was one of those conversations where I need to explain something to an “outsider” – in this case not only a non-spinner, but a non-fiber person!  I’m going to attempt it again here, drawing some parallels to food and gardening, as those topics have become more mainstream.

Welsh Hill Speckled Face Sheep:  Photo by Pete Birkinshaw

Once upon a time, when most people grew most of their own food, it mattered what type of tomato you were growing or what breed of chicken you raised.  It wasn’t so much a matter of Good or Bad, more of Good for this purpose and Bad for that one.  With the advent of Industrial Agriculture (among other things) that idea had largely disappeared.  Now, with the current trend toward Farmer’s Markets, home gardens, and heirloom varietals, these topics are in the news, so that many non-foodies know something about them, even if it’s not a personal interest.

Karakul Sheep:  Photo by Patricia Longoria,

What does this have to do with spinning?  The same idea that The Variety Matters also holds true for sheep and other fiber-bearing animals.  Just as there are hundreds of varieties of tomato, there are hundreds of breeds of sheep (and yes -to the already-spinners out there – I know there’s a lot of stuff to spin besides wool, but I’m leaving that for another post!).  Unfortunately, the average yarn-user’s knowledge and understanding of sheep breeds has followed the same path as the supermarket produce shopper.  Aside from the “brand recognition” of Merino and Shetland (both breeds of sheep), wool is wool, right? That itchy stuff that you have to wear a heavy turtleneck under?  Well – not really -no!

Lock from Merino fleece:  Photo by Lisa Dusseault

All sheep have wool, but different breeds have slightly different wool.  To vastly oversimplify things,  all sheeps’ fleeces fall somewhere on a spectrum of fine to coarse, and short to long.  Fineness is based on the diameter of the fibers.  Length is the length of the fibers (usually one year’s growth) – wool parlance for this is “staple length.”  The finer a wool is, the softer it is.  Conversely, the coarser a wool is, the rougher and more prickly it feels, and it’s this “prickle factor” that gives wool a reputation for being itchy.  Wool, from an industrial perspective, is a byproduct of the lamb industry.  With the exception of Merino and other specialty breeds, ranchers make their money off meat.  Most sheep need to be shorn annually for health reasons, and in most cases the shepherd sends all the wool to the local “wool pool” which will have fleeces from several breeds, all of varying quality, all mixed together.  This is where most generic “wool” for the textile industry comes from.  Naturally it’s likely to be itchy!

Merino Ewe:  Photo by nzsheep

Merino is the Gold Standard in soft, fine wool.  Most people could wear Merino underwear and be perfectly comfortable and non-itchy.  At the other end of the spectrum there are breeds like Lincoln, which have long, coarse staples, and make excellent rug yarn – but you wouldn’t want it in a turtleneck.  And here you see your tradeoff.  Merino is nice and soft and comfy – but you certainly wouldn’t want to make a rug out of it.  The fine fibers that make it so soft don’t stand up to that kind of wear.  You’d have holes in your rug in no time.  The nice sturdy fibers that wear like iron (the “rug wools”) would be way too itchy for clothing.

Crimpy Wool:  Photo by Kara Brugman 2010

Wensleydale Sheep: Photo by Eadaoin Flynn

 Here’s where we get back to the original subject.  Why spin your own yarn?  Because there are lots of sheep breeds that fall in different places all up and down this spectrum of fine-to-coarse.  Just like growing your own vegetables or sewing your own clothes, when you spin your own yarn you can tailor it to the end use in a way that’s difficult to do with generic off-the-shelf wool.  Sure it’s easy to find Merino yarn – that’s one of the few breeds available by name.  But suppose you want to crochet a hearth rug or make potholders?  Pick a coarser longwool breed.  Knitted and felted clogs, slippers and handbags are also becoming popular – you can choose something in the middle that’s not too prickly on your feet, but will still survive being walked on. Sure you can use Merino for socks – it’ll be comfortable, but I hope you like darning! Pick something like Blue-faced Leicester, which is a longwool breed, but still very soft.  Once you start exploring the characteristics of different breeds it can be hard to stop!  You start giving the classic spinner’s justification of “Yes I know I have ten fleeces in the closet, but I don’t have that one yet!”  In the end it all becomes useful stuff.  The more we know and understand, the more useful and long-lasting our stuff will be!

Things to do in the dark

Being without power for extended periods of time means finding things you can do in poor light.  I can spin pretty well in the dark, and I don’t usually have to look too hard at my knitting if it isn’t something too complicated.  Unfortunately the knitting project I was working on when the power went out was these:

Not really something I could work on in the dark!  I managed to finish them the day after the power came back on.

I really needed something completely mindless, so I decided to knit swatches! I had two full-sized skeins and two samples in different colorways.  I decided a while ago that I wanted to post photos of knitted sample in my Fiberarts Etsy, because there’s so often such a big difference in what a multicolored yarn looks like in the skein and how it knits up.  How many times have you had a multicolored yarn that you loved in the skein, but that you really just didn’t like in the knitted object?  

The same thing happens in reverse all the time – you see some knitting with colors that you love, then see the yarn it was knitted with, and think “I would never have pictured this yarn coming out like that!”

Spinners experience this all the time.  See how bright and almost garish the different colors look in the unspun wool?  The colors become much less intense in the finished yarn because of the the blending that occurs during spinning.  Because of this blending, it can be hard to see from the yarn that it will create subtle stripes when it’s knitted up.

The striping is more prominent in the first example because I used colors with strong contrast. In this second example the colors are much more closely related, both in hue and value.  Here, you don’t get strong stripes so much as a subtle shading.

Of course, the final effect will always depend on the size of your knitting.  Smaller projects like socks will end up with much wider and more prominent stripes.  Sweaters and shawls will have narrower stripes – sometimes maybe only one row before the color changes enough to be noticeable!  Still, it’s always nice to at least have a ballpark idea of what a yarn is going to do before you plan your project.

Back to More Important Things!

Now that I’m done whining about having to replace my computer I can get back to the fun stuff!   I was very, very lucky recently.  A good friend decided to “invest” in my business(es) and gave me enough money to really start to get some things off the ground.  I’ll be able to start a wholesale account with a fiber supplier, so that I can buy my wool at wholesale prices, which will give me a broader selection and a slightly higher profit margin.  After waiting forever for Etsy to come through with the promised ability to manage more than one shop from the same account, I finally just went ahead and started a second Etsy account to sell the yarn and spinning fiber in.  I’m not putting the link out there yet because the shop is still empty.  Writing up Etsy listings is more like writing ad copy than a classified, and that’s never come easily to me, so the listings are going through lots of revisions before I make them public.  I’m hoping to have the new shop up and running by Thanksgiving!

Here’s what I’ve been working on:

 I’m starting to work on colorways outside of single color families – these are some of my more successful attempts. 

 I’m also working on increasing my spinning speed.  I expect the dyed fiber to be a bigger percentage of sales, but since much of what I spin ends up sitting around waiting for a project, it may as well be available for purchase while it’s waiting!

These first two colorways came out beautifully the first time!  I love it when things work right!

This last skein is just for me 🙂  It’ll go nicely with this yarn.  Right now I’m thinking of hats and leg warmers, because this yarn is too “soft” for socks.  It would pill terribly, and I’d probably get holes faster than I’d like.


Not terribly fashionable perhaps, but I’m planning on wearing them under skirts with the actual aim of keeping my legs warm! 

A different kind of dyeing experiment

Having spent the bulk of the summer working on painted roving, I decided to try a different method for achieving Color in Yarn.  Painted rovings are fun to spin, and they can be a lot of fun to knit with, but solids are nice as well.  Plus, I have a lot of raw fleece that I can’t process into roving at home, and I need to find something to do with it.

Rather than mix my chosen color and then dye the wool, I decided to dye the wool in the individual base colors I use, then blend them together in the proportions called for in that color formula.  Say I started with 100g of fiber – if my “recipe” was 68% color A, 20% color B, and 12% color C, I’d use 68g of wool dyed in A, 20g in B and 12 in C, and blend the individual colors.  This process takes advantage of optical blending, in much the same way pointillism does.  It creates the appearance of a solid color, but with greater depth and interest, especially when seen from up close.

Here’s what I did.  I weighed out the fiber for individual colors into gallon zipper freezer bags (labelled, so I would know what color went in which bag), added a solution of water and Synthropol (a surfactant to ensure the fiber wets out evenly), and let the wool sit for a couple of hours.  Then one bag at a time, I carefully removed the wool and added the appropriate  amount of dye & other chemical assists, then returned the wool to the bag.  I found it important to remove the wool before adding the dye, otherwise most of the color would end up in one spot on the wool, rather than evenly dispersed.

I then put the plastic bags full of wool/dye in a large stockpot with a rack at the bottom, and filled the stockpot with water.  I slowly heated up the water bath, monitoring the temperature with one of those nifty probe thermometers that provides a constant readout, and kept it at about 180F for about two hours, then left the bags to cool to room temperature in the water bath.

When they had cooled, I rinsed the wool and hung it to dry, then blended the separate colors on my drum carder.

It spins up into a wonderfully lofty DK/Worsted weight 2ply!  I’m very pleased with the results!  One of the things I like about this process is that it allows me to turn what would normally be a flaw into a “design element.”  This particular fleece is fairly fine, and despite my best handling is prone to neps.  These little clumps of fiber are generally considered undesirable in an undyed or solid colored yarn, but when the colors are dyed before being blended, the neps make nice little flecks of color in the finished yarn that I find I rather like!

My next question in this process:  Do I card the wool before or after the dyebath?  If I dye before, the fiber gets a little compacted by the process, and I need one or two more passes through the carder than I would otherwise.  On the other hand, if I dye after, I still need to do almost as much carding, but would no longer have the choice between very thorough blending (as in the example here) or a streakier, less uniform batt.  If I wanted that effect I would have to card all the colors separately anyway, so would it really save that much time?  I’ll work on that idea on my next round!

Some more finished yarn

These 2oz combed tops I’ve been using to test colorways spin up very quickly!  This is the red from the top I showed you here.  This one is a one-off – I messed up while I was mixing the dyes in such a way that I knew I’d made a mistake, but couldn’t tell you exactly what I’d done wrong, so sadly, this mistake is not repeatable.

This is the yarn from the yellow top that I forgot to take a photo of.  Rather, I thought I had already taken photos of it.  I try to wait until I’ve got a pic of the dyed fiber before I spin it up, just for record-keeping purposes.  Oh well – I guess I’ll have to take the roving photo next time I dye this colorway.

This is what the red at the top of the page was supposed to look like.  Now that the top has a photo I can spin this and see how I like the yarn.
This is my first shot at “purples,” but it’s turned out more blue than I wanted.  I have another version cooking right now (along with “oranges”), so I should have something less blue and more purple to show you next time.

Selling at the Farmer’s Market

I love my local farmer’s market.  It’s not that big, but there’s a lot of food, and there’s frequently live music!  They also reserve a few spots for Not Food.  This year I decided to try and sell my jewelry and wool/yarn at the farmer’s market.  I don’t really care if I don’t sell very much.  I’m aiming for greater exposure rather than stellar sales, although that would be nice!

This farmer’s market is Thursdays from 11-2 in downtown Hartford,  in the grassy courtyard of an old factory that has been turned into apartments and a community center.  The courtyard is where they have the community gardens, and it’s nice to see those raised beds full of veggies!

Most of the foot traffic is lunch traffic from the surrounding businesses.  The farmer’s market sets out picnic tables, and there are several vendors who sell prepared food, as well as a big catering truck that parks itself right outside the gates.  While I might not expect people who came to shop for food to be interested in jewelry, it’s not such a far stretch for the business people.

My first day was last week (I’m set up for about every other week), but I ended up running late because DH had made an orthodontist appointment for that morning, and he ended up getting home about 5 minutes before it opened.  I’m only about 10 minutes away, but this was not how I’d wanted to start!  Fortunately this wasn’t a huge deal – I was not the only one setting up late.  I can’t wait for my son to graduate so he can come help me set up and break down – schlepping all my stuff from the parking lot to my spot on the other side of the courtyards seemed to take forever!

 My setup usually looks much nicer than this!  Unfortunately Elaine (my business partner) has our table coverings, and I’d forgotten to take one home with me when we did our annual Big Show at the beginning of May.  Of course since table coverings are usually something I don’t have to think about, it didn’t occur to me until the night before that I didn’t have one!  In a truly sad act of desperation, I used the green polar fleece blanket we keep on our sofa.  It was a better choice than the Dora blanket.  Next time I will find something nicer, with better coverage.  At a normal craft show we would have more jewelry, because Elaine’s would be out as well, and two additional small tables.  And no yarn, of course.  I think it came out OK, but Elaine is much better at figuring out where everything should go than I am.  I’ll just have to continue to tweak things.

I ended up next to a booth run by a pair of elderly women from Bosnia, who sell knitted and crocheted items.   I’d brought my spinning wheel, and they both seemed to get a kick out of it 🙂  Their English wasn’t great, but they communicated their approval easily enough.  One of them stood watching me spin for quite a while, and eventually asked how much my wheel had cost (about $600 12 years ago), and seemed to think it was a reasonable price.

The spinning wheel got a lot of attention, as I had hoped it would!  I got a lot of people asking questions about the wool and yarn, so that was gratifying.  I had many nice conversations with people – one of whom was telling me about her sister-in-law, who raises Shetland sheep in Vermont.  As she was describing the operation, it occurred to me that I had heard this story before – her sister-in-law had done a program on Shetland sheep for the Nutmeg Spinner’s Guild, when I was still an active member!  Small world!  A few people with kids stopped for a bit so their kids could watch the spinning.  Several people wanted to know if I was going to be there next/every week, which I take as a good sign! 

I only sold one small piece, and that was to one of the other vendors.  I hadn’t expected to sell anything at all my first day, so this was a plus!  It covered my booth fee, which is the important thing.  After all, most people don’t go to a small farmer’s market like this expecting to find jewelry and craft supplies.  I’ll need to be there more regularly, then people will expect me to be there and bring money.  I even had a couple people write down what dates I’d be there next!  I know other people’s plans rarely pan out in my favor, but if they’re interested enough to write the info down it shows that there’s enough interest for it to be worth it to me to continue to show up.