This is hand spun, hand dyed wool from local sheep. It’s reasonably soft, being a Jacob/Merino mix, but not the softest thing I’ve ever felt by a long shot. Who cares, right?
Well, this yarn is for sale on consignment at a local yarn shop. When I was last in there, several women were feeling it and commenting that it wasn’t very soft. Then they asked me why the alpaca yarn was so much softer. I never got the chance to answer, because then they realized it *was* alpaca.
Now, I’m not a fan of really scratchy wool. I don’t know anyone who is, except perhaps people who weave carpets. But because I buy raw fleece from a variety of breeds, and process it myself or send it to my friend Rita at Arizona Fiber Mill, it is not processed by using chemicals to burn the vegetable matter out of the fleece. This preserves the inherent softness. It gets plain old soap and really hot water, just as it’s basically been done for hundreds – thousands – of years. Though to be fair in some regions urine was boiled to wash the wool. Urine actually is a pretty powerful antimicrobial cleaner, believe it or not. The active ingredient is ammonia.
But back to the title of the post.
As a hand spinner, I spend a lot of time with fiber. I want my finished product to be beautiful, functional, and above all durable. There are many types of sheep who produce many types of wool. ALL of these sheep were developed for specific purposes. And until recently, those purposes had to include not only meat, but fiber as well.
Want a durable carpet? Don’t use merino wool! Use the outer coat of an Icelandic, or Lincoln, or a primitive fat tailed sheep variety such as is found in carpet producing regions like Pakistan or Turkey, or Iran.
Want great long lasting socks that stay up? Again, don’t use merino! Use Dorset down, which in my opinion is far and away the springiest and most resilient wool and excellent for socks.
Want a blanket or a jacket? Use Cotswold. Spun worsted, it makes the ideal weaving yarn.
Want a really soft yarn for a scarf or a hat? OK, now use merino. But be aware that it probably won’t last for years and years, not if it’s spun to current standards. Industrially spun yarns are not very tightly spun nor plied. It give a softer hand to the yarn, but it will pill and make your hard work look quite bad in not a very long time. It’s even worse in a sweater unless it’s spun with something like silk.
I’m not anti-merino. It’s a wonderful type of crimpy fleece that is pleasurable to spin. BUT. Because I can spin my own, I choose to spin a slightly ‘harder’ yarn with more twist than you will see in commercial yarns. This is because I want my yarn to pill less and last longer in good condition.
The above Jacob/merino cross is a perfect example of what people don’t understand about wool yarn now days, because our mass produced industrial society encourages overconsumption and throw away items. This apparently includes hand knit items, because the only thing most knitters I know who don’t spin look for is “soft wool.” OOH, it’s so soft!! When I hear how soft a yarn is I automatically picture the product pilling and being discarded after a year or two. This yarn pictured is actually pretty reasonably soft, because the wool itself is medium soft and because it’s spun to preserve a reasonable portion of the ‘soft’ factor.
ETA: after I re-read the above paragraph this morning I realized I should include how it’s spun to clear up the apparent discrepancy between saying I spin a ‘harder’ yarn and spinning to preserve its softness. I spun this particular yarn in a semi-woolen manner. Meaning, I spun it using a modified long draw (picture my arm drawing way back like I’m going to pitch a ball, only I have wool in my hand and a twisted single going into the spinning wheel as I draw back. When I bring my arm forward, that single gets taken up onto the bobbin). This is what gives the fluffy and soft aspect of the yarn. I spin from carded pin drafted roving when I do this which gives the semi-part of the semi-woolen. It’s not quite full worsted (firm and durable) and not quite true woolen (really fluffy and soft, not durable at all). As I said, my yarns have more twist in the singles to start with than a lot of commercial yarns do, so even my softer stuff will hold up better than an equivalent commercial yarn.
In older times, people weren’t so concerned about “soft” because they knew they were sacrificing durability for softness. If they put a wool item on as a warm layer, they usually had something like linen underneath. No one had time to reknit something just because they wanted another one. Things got worn until they were past mending any more. As a hand spinner, my outlook is much more closely aligned with my ancestors’ than with current standards. I want soft, yes. But in small quantities for specific uses. Otherwise, I want durability over soft.
It takes me about a week to wash and comb enough fleece to begin spinning yarn for socks. I make a 3 ply yarn when I make sock yarn, so I spin up 3 four ounce bobbins worth of singles. Then I ply them all together to make my 3 ply yarn. I lose a bit in length by doing a 3 ply because they are circling around themselves in a larger diameter than in a 2 ply, but I also get much better resistance to wear by doing so. A round yarn wears better than a flat one. You want this for socks. It takes me approximately 5 hours to spin 4 ounces of singles at the thin diameter appropriate for making a nice thin sock yarn. Before I’ve even begun to ply I’m already at 15 hours of time at the spinning wheel. Plying takes another 3-4 hours. Then I have to wash it and set the twist.
If I’m going to dye it now is the time, which takes another day for dyeing and drying. I’m now approximately 40 hours into these socks, and I haven’t even begun knitting yet!
I can knit a regular crew length sock in approximately 5 hours. So it takes me 10 hours to knit a pair for myself. 50 hours worth of work is a lot of time to invest in an item! From my 12 ounces I can knit 3 pairs of socks for myself, 2 pairs for a man, or 1 pair of kilt hose. And this is why I won’t use merino for hand spun socks. Not only does it tend to pill, but it felts VERY easily. Which is something you do NOT want in a pair of socks, because felting shrinks them too. Dorset doesn’t felt very well in my experience, at least when it’s spun true worsted (all the fibers aligned in the long ways direction).
It’s a similar process for a sweater. The average sweater requires a pound of wool. And for a woman, approximately 1200 yards of yarn. That’s only if it’s color work or plain knit. If you are doing a lot of cables like an Aran sweater, you need closer to 3 pounds of wool, and 1600 yards of yarn. Regardless of what you may have read about Aran sweaters being a traditional garment, the plain fact is that they weren’t in common use until well after the industrial revolution and most women were no longer spinning their own yarn. No one is going to invest that much time into spinning the yarn for that kind of sweater when they are knitting for their entire family.
So soft…? Only sometimes. Mostly I prefer to sacrifice a little softness in favor of durability. But then, I’m a very practical person. What about you?