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Fiber

Fiber thru the ages
Fiber Animals
The Abundant varieties of Sheep's Wool
Fiber Goats
Those cute cuddly Angora Rabbits
Llama wool
Alpacas
Cellulose fibers
The common Cotton
Flax to Linen
The Steps in Preparing Wool
Spinning Tools to get Started

Fiber thru the ages

Early humans collected fiber from animals such as Mammoth and Wooly Rinos, picking up the dense under coat as it was shed, from bushes and shrubs. Mouflon also provided fiber, such fibers were used as stuffing and absorbent filling. The twisting of such fibers was accomplished for making ropes and baskets but making cloth was a later invention.

Many types of plant fiber were used for cord making and basket weaving. Any fibrous plants found were woven into cooking baskets, storage baskets and mats. The first fiber made into cloth was probably Flax. Many early remnants of linen cloth have been found.

Spinning was a daily task of women for thousand of years. Girls learned the task at a very young age and spun for most of their lives. Thread was spun to be woven into clothing, bedding, towels, and hangings. For thousands of years the only way spinning was done was using the drop spindle. The first spinning wheel would not appear until the 1400's. Spinning wheels were hand driven wheels often called great wheels. The Saxon wheel was the first type of spinning wheel to have a foot pedal, this was developed about 150 years after the great wheel. This greatly sped up the spinning process and lead to the industrialization of yarn making.

Some interesting terms of yesteryear started in spinning. A spinster was a women that spun, and spinning took so much time that only single women could have the time to spend on such an vocation. Many of us sang the nursery rhyme The monkey chased the weasel, The weasel was a item to wind yarn on and when it went Pop the required yardage was measured, the monkey was the yarn. If you can't remember this rhyme I have found a site compete with music for you to visit, this button will take you there, just use the back button to come back. There are many other Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes, and Fairy Tales that mention spinning or are centered around spinning. Some include Rumpelstiltskin, Sleeping Beauty, Cross Patch.

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Fiber Animals

Many animals are raised for fiber by homesteaders today, Sheep, producing wool, Goats, producing mohair and cashmere, Rabbits, producing angora, and Llamas, and Alpacas producing soft beautiful wool. Other fibers that are available but not usually grown by the homesteader are silk, from the silk worm, camel down, the beautiful soft undercoat of the camel and Qiviut, the downy undercoat of the musk ox.

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The Abundant varieties of Sheep's Wool

Sheep were among the first of the wild animals to be domesticated about 4000 years ago. The modern sheep are descents of the wild Mouflon. Sheep provided people with milk, cheese, meat, wool, sheepskins, lanolin, sometimes called wool fat or wool oil, and parchment, made from lambskins. This valuable animal was a whole grocery store. Today sheep are still raised for all of the same items except parchment.

Sheep today are represented by over 50 breeds giving us a choice of about 200 wool textures, and many natural colors. You can raise sheep to make anything from rugs to fine lace.

The Merino or Rambouilet are examples of fine short wools used for the softest garments worn next to the skin. Merino is often mixed with other wools to produce more elasticity or softness.

Medium length wools like Corriedale, Finn or the rare Polwarth are used in hand spinning for sweaters, mittens or other outer ware.

Some short wooled breeds like Suffolk, Dorset, or Hampshire lack the softness and sheen of Merino but are suitable for outer ware.

The long wooled breeds like Romney, Lincoln, Border Leicester, Lincoln Coopworth and Cotswold are used by handspinners for making strong lustrous yarns. The strength of these long staple wools combined with their luster makes them ideal wools for weaving.

Breeds like Scottish Blackface, Cheviot, Black Welsh Mountain, or Karakul are course wool breeds. These are used for making carpets or rug type wools.

Rare breeds are frequently raised by handspinners to obtain specialty wool. Jacob sheep are making a comeback with their spotted coats and Shetland sheep are gracing pastures more often to provide a fine hand spinning fleece.

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Fiber Goats

Goats provide us with Mohair and Cashmere. Angora goats produce Mohair, a long lustrous strong fiber. Mohair blends with other fibers adding textures, luster and smoothness. It has a high affinity for dyes, providing bright colors. Mohair is a lightweight fiber that doesn't crush, matt, wrinkle or stretch easily and is flame resistant. The first clip of an Angora kid is the finest and most sought after by handspinners. Much Angora is used commercially as Santa beards.

Cashmere is the undercoat of the cashmere goat. Cashmere goats have guard hair that has to be separated from the downy undercoat. Cashmere is a luxury fiber that is fine, soft but strong. This fiber can be used to make sweaters, scarfs or for weaving. The Cashmere goat is not a breed of goat but a hair type bred in goats.

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Those cute cuddly Angora Rabbits

The first long haired rabbits were described the early 1700's in England. This rabbit became popular in England as a textile fiber and export was forbidden by law. About 23 years later some angora rabbits were smuggled by British sailors to France. By 1900 France was producing about 10 metric tons of angora annually. The Germans believe that angora is beneficial to arthritis and rheumatism. Most of their angora is blended with Merino wool and used for making long underwear.

United States first started raising Angora Rabbits in the 1930's, some attempts at production of Angora as a textile product failed. Angora rabbits would be mostly pets, and show animals, except for the industry of hand spinners. Many hand spinners raise several Angora Rabbits for their own use, and for making luxury products to sell.

Angora is a light weight fiber that is seven times warmer then sheep's wool, it also can absorb two times the moisture of sheep's wool and still remain warm. Angora can be spun from a rabbit as is with no washing or carding, or it can be blended with wool, llama, mohair to produce quality garments. When blending or spinning angora wool you should take into account the nature of angora. Angora doesn't have elasticity of sheep's woo, but is a light soft lofty wool. When choosing a project Angora is better in a soft loosely knit draping style to display the qualities of the wool.

Different breeds of Angora will give you different looks in spun yarn and garments. The German angoras have more guard hair and will produce a "furry" garment that will fluff up with use. English Angoras will produce a garment that is soft with much less fluffy fur.

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Llama Wool

Llama fiber is becoming increasingly available as more and more handspinners keep them as guard animals for their spinners flocks. Llamas are from South America and were used for fiber, packing and meat. The guard hairs were used in cord or rope making while the soft undercoat is spun on spindles for weaving into clothing, blankets and mats. This multipurpose animal is now used in United States for packing, cart pulling, as pets, and for fiber. Selective breeding has produced a wooly animal with little or no guard hair that has long soft strong wool. Some of the short wooled llamas are better used for the packing and cart pulling so the fiber is not tangled into the gear. Llama wool is customarily combed rather then carded and often doesn't need to be washed. The lack of natural lanolin in llama wool allows it to be spun as is if desired.

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Alpacas

Alpacas originated in the high Andean Plateau in South America and along with the Llama have been domesticated for 6000 years. Alpaca fiber, once reserved for Incan Royalty, is soft, silky, and lustrous while being strong and resilient.

As the Alpaca numbers increase in North America hand spinners will be seeing more of this beautiful fiber. Alpacas come in a range of colors from pure white to shades of fawn thru rich browns and jet black, there are 22 natural colors in all.

The fiber differs between the two types of Alpaca. The Suri has a lustrous, fine fleece with out any crimp. The Huacayas fleece has the same luster and softness along with crimp, making it the choice for hand spinning. Most of North American Alpacas are Huacayas.

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Cellulose fibers

Some spinners plant and harvest the vegetable fibers, making soft cotton garments or elegant linen fabrics. Processing cotton is much like processing animal fibers, but flax takes some extra equipment and time. Flax is a attractive garden plant, producing beautiful blue flowers. Hemp was a fiber plant in colonial American times but it is virtually being wiped out by federal drug agents that feel it is too close to marihuana, to allow the public to grow and use.

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The common Cotton

Cotton comes in several varieties, the short American upland variety, the long silky American-Egyptian variety and Brown cotton that used to be called Slave cotton.

Cotton is the fluffy seed casing that may be plucked by hand or machine. Ginning cotton removes the seeds and vegetable matter from the fiber, this is very labor intensive if done by hand.

Cotton fiber is very short and needs to be spun into a fine diameter yarn and plied if a bulkier yarn is needed. Hand spun cotton makes excellent warp if spun smoothly. Plied yarns work well in knitting.

Cotton is used in a variety of projects from cool soft garments, to lacy edgings or woven fabrics.

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Flax to Linen

Flax is one of the oldest plant fibers first used by man. Flax is a annual, flowering in shades of white to blue, the blue flowered plants are considered the best fiber type. All flax is not used for fiber, the majority of this crop is used for food products and oil. Oil from the flax plant is called linseed oil. The fiber and oil flax, is a short stemmed branching type, While the longer stemmed type without branching is used for fiber. Fiber made from the flax plant is called linen.

Flax is planted in rich moist soil in the spring, most areas can grow flax as it is hardy to zone 2. Harvesting is done about 30 days after blooming when the stems and leaves start to turn yellow. Flax fiber is not cut but pulled from the ground and dried either spread in the sun or gathered in clumps to dry.

The first step in transforming flax to linen is called Rippling. Rippling is the process of removing the seeds, it can be done by hand or by machine. Commercial seed removal runs the stalks thru combs containing long metal teeth. Seeds may be kept and used for next years crop if the seeds are mature.

Separating the inner flax fibers from the stem is called Retting. Retting may be done several ways, Dew Retting is done by spreading the flax stalks on the ground. This usually takes about 6 weeks. The stalks are turned over 3-4 times so the process is even. The flax is ready if the fiber separates from the stem when it is broken. The fiber obtained by this method is a gray color. Water retting is done by submerging the bundles in water, it may be stagnate or running water. This process is quicker then the Dew Retting, taking only about 3 days, and the fiber obtained by this method is golden or pale cream.

After drying the stalks are broken down by beating and combing a process called Scutching. This may be done by hand on a board with metal teeth.

Linen is spun wet for a smooth yarn that is suitable for warp if spun evenly and tightly plied. Finely spun linen can be used for knitting if plied first. Linen fabrics last for a long time and will get softer and more lustrous the more they are handled and washed. The down side of course is they wrinkle very well!

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The Steps in Preparing Wool

Spinning is the process of twisting a fiber to make a yarn. Some fibers can be spun without processing others need to be washed, picked and carded or combed. Animal fibers that are without lanolin can be spun without washing or carding. Many of you may have see a demonstration at your local fair of a spinner sitting with a beautiful angora bunny in her lap, alternating spinning with plucking fiber. Llama and alpaca also can be spun without washing but may need to be combed.

After shearing, a fleece from a sheep is laid out in one piece and skirted, this process is simply pulling off the parts of the fleece that would be unusable because of soiling. Manure tags from the butt area, along with belly wool and some neck wool with excess vegetative material in it, is all removed. If you are raising sheep it is best to keep them as clean as possible, the more hay in the wool the harder you have to work later. We coat our sheep to keep the fleece clean.

Then the fleece needs to be washed to clean the lanolin from the wool. Washing wool is usually done in hot water with a mild soap. It is important to keep the temperature constant and not to agitate the wool, both cause felting and shrinking. The wool may be spun dry in the washer to extract the water. Rinsing is done in the same temperature with no agitation. After a final spin cycle the wool should be laid out to dry. Some people prefer to spin the wool without washing first, this is called "spinning in the grease".

The next step in processing wool is picking. This is done to separate the ends of the locks of wool. Some wool types may need more picking then others. Picking is usually done by hand at home, but can be done by a machine. Pickers can take the drudgery out of the picking task. A picker has metal teeth on a curved board, and another curved board swings back and forth to separate the fiber.

Carding is done to align the fibers in the same direction. Carding results in woolen yarns, soft lofty yarns made out of fibers of different lengths. Carding can be accomplished by hand cards or a drum carder. Hand cards look like a pair of slickers like the kind you brush your dog with. The drum carder has 2 drums one large and one small. The drums are covered with the same type of metal teeth as the hand carders. A crank on the large drum turns both drums. In using either type of card the first step is charging the card. With hand cards the teeth should be barely visible, then with the opposite hand you brush the wool. Either process will make batts or rolags so you can commence spinning. Rolags are usually made on hand carders and batts come from drum carders.

Combing is done on longer fibers and makes a worsted yarn that is stronger, more lustrous, and smooth. The process of combing separates out the shorter fibers from the longer fibers. The short fibers are left over and called noils, and the combed portion is called top. Noils can be carded together to make woolen yarn.

Combs come in many types, single rows, or double rows of teeth, they all work the same way. First you load the fiber on one comb then you comb it from the ends until it is all on one comb. The combing is continued until the fiber is open and even. Then the fiber is drawn thru a diz, an tool made of shell, bone or wood with a small whole in the middle. The fiber remaining on the comb is the niols, these can be set aside to be carded later.

Well now you are ready to spin. Almost.

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Spinning Tools to get Started

Most people start with a drop spindle. Drop spindles have been in use for thousands of years and are still busy making yarn and thread. With a drop spindle and some hand cards you can get started with all that wool you just washed. Using a drop spindle is usually done standing up, with one hand pulling out bits of wool and the other hand smoothing the fiber between fingers while the spindle shaft whirls. After the wool is spun it is wound onto the shaft of the drop spindle and a new length is spun. This is a very time consuming project, but many people find it a soothing and relaxing way to spin.

If you need more speed, then a spinning wheel will be your next purchase. Spinning wheels come in an ever increasing amount of varieties. Some are finely made pieces of furniture, some are built to travel, some are cheaper models to start on. The wheel can be in a down position with the mother of all on the top or off to the side in a more traditional wheel. Some wheels do certain fibers better then others. Many areas have Spinning Guilds, try to find one in your area and go to a meeting, you will see a whole multitude of wheels and lots of hand spinners eager to show you how well their wheel works. Wheels are very personal items, you must find a wheel you can be comfortable with.

If you are going to spin lots of sheep's wool you may want to invest in a drum carder. A drum carder will allow you to process your wool lots faster, so you can spend more time spinning. Some spinners do not work with fleeces but buy fibers all prepared in rovings. Rovings are long untwisted ropes of fiber ready to spin.

Spinning can be a rewarding hobby providing yarns and garments for your family and friends.

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