Editor’s Note: This is the second post in our ongoing Farm to Closet series where we’re following the journey of a sheep’s wool from a sustainably managed ranch in Patagonia as it’s spun, dyed, and knit into a finished beautiful piece. Read the first post.
I really thought that nothing could be softer than a delicious hank of merino yarn. Then I received an innocent little package from Ricardo Fenton, manager of the Estancia Monte Dinero, one of the Ovis XXI partner ranches in Argentina that The Nature Conservancy is working with to develop sustainable grazing practices. That little package changed the definition of “soft” because inside was what you see below: yards and yards of cuddly merino wool tops that virtually cry “make me into something comfy!”
Now obviously tops doesn’t come straight off the sheep like this. There are a few more steps before the fleece is able to be spun, including scouring (washing), drying, and combing or carding – separating and straightening the wool fibers using what looks like two big metal hairbrushes.
The process of spinning wool into yarn has been around for centuries, when the fibers were actually twisted together between the hand and thigh. The invention of the spinning wheel in medieval times changed the art of spinning, first with the “great wheel” (a big fly wheel turned by hand) and later with the “treadle wheel,” which included a foot-pedal to power the wheel.
These tools were used for hundreds of years until the Industrial Revolution, when the invention of the spinning jenny revolutionized the textile industry. One spinning jenny could out-produce nearly a dozen workers and became indispensable in the mills that sprouted up along New England’s rivers to meet the growing demand for manufactured garments (remember “sheep fever?”).
One of those mills, Harrisville Designs, still operates today in New Hampshire. In addition to being one of the last remaining producers of 100% wool yarn in the United States, they also teach folks how to spin the old fashioned way – including me.
(Yours truly sitting at a treadle wheel awaiting instruction. Yes, I knit that shirt.)
The overall concept isn’t difficult – treadle (pedal) to get the wheel going (and maintain speed), “draft” the fiber, and watch yarn form. Easy, right? Suuuure. Let’s see that a little more closely.
Treadling makes the fly wheel spin. A belt on the fly wheel connects to the flyer which, in turn, surrounds the spindle and bobbin. Spinning the wheel spins the flyer, which winds the newly-formed yarn onto the bobbin.
Drafting is the process of pulling lengths of fiber from your mass of tops or roving and gently feeding it to the wheel. Through a combination of rotation and tension, the drafted fibers start to spin into a thread that’s sucked in by the flyer and wrapped around the bobbin. The amount of fiber drafted, coupled with the speed at which the wheel is turning, determines the amount of twist in (and therefore the thickness and strength of) the yarn. There’s some pretty in-depth physics to how that actually works and it has to be precise, otherwise you get a jumble of overspun fiber. When it works right, you get yarn:
It took an extraordinary amount of trial and error (and patience) to get even a few yards of yarn on the spindle. To think of the incredible time and effort our ancestors dedicated to producing enough to make a single garment! It must have taken months to go from sheering the sheep to processing and spinning the fiber into something usable. And then you still have to dye and knit it. Need a new pair of socks? No problem – just wait 10 months.
In the end I produced a very tiny skein of yarn. You know what? That’s okay, because I did it. Should we ever end up in a world without power like on Revolution, I could potentially own a sheep and keep my family clothed. In the near-term, I’ve developed an even stronger appreciation for the incredible resources that nature provides, as well as for those who had the creativity and patience to understand and develop how to use them. When working together, people and nature can achieve wondrous things, don’t you think?
[All images: Lori Johnson]