Christmas Carding

Dear Reader:

I haven’t sent my Christmas cards out yet, but I have been doing some carding . . . fiber carding.

One of the neat things about trying to be more local has been meeting new and talented people and learning new and fascinating skills from those people. I took up knitting a few years ago thanks to my friend, Sandy, who bugged, er, encouraged me until I grabbed a pair of bamboo needles and crafted my first fuzzy scarf. Coincidentally, knitting is an activity that allows me to support local business by buying yarn, needles, books, and other supplies from small business owners like Rosemary at Rosemary’s Gift Shop in the neighboring town of Cornish.

If you ever get a chance to visit Cornish, Maine, do so. It is a small New England village with an old-fashioned common green surrounded by vintage buildings, many of which house antique shops, quaint stores, and restaurants. Rosemary has a gift shop downstairs and a large inventory of yarns on the second floor. I can never leave there until I’ve spent at least an hour looking at yarns that run the gamut from tiny fingering weight for socks to airy, bulky yarns perfect for fun hats and scarves. The only problem is deciding which to bring home!

As much as I love buying factory-made yarn in all its variety, I yearned to learn how to spin my own yarn.

I had seen demonstrations at fairs and craft shows, and the process fascinated me. I suspected the repetitive motion and resulting product–usable yarn–would suit my daydreamy personality. I love activities that keep my hands busy while allowing my mind to wander at will. Solitary activities with only the sound of music from radio or cd to accompany the work. Writing falls into this category. It is active, my hands moving over the keyboard and fingers tapping the keys while my mind spins stories and ideas and dialogue. Spinning, I thought, would be similar, but even more tactile.

Lucky for me, I met Laura who offered to teach me the basics of spinning and to let me borrow her cute little Ashford Kiwi wheel. Over successive Thursdays, Laura taught me how to predraft wool rovings, how to spin the rovings into yarn singles, how to ply singles together into double-ply or navajo ply, and finally how to card washed and dyed wool and roll the carded fibers into round, skinny bundles called rolags.

In essence, I started at the end–knitting a garment–and have worked my way back to carding the fiber. If I continue on this course, I’ll end up dying wool and then washing wool and then shearing a sheep and then buying my own flock. I’m pretty sure my husband will stop me before I get to that first, basic step in the life cycle of a sweater. However, this week I’ve been practicing my carding skills, and thought my readers would enjoy learning a little bit about the process.

Dyed Goat Fiber

The dyed fiber comes in a clumpy bundle. This particular fiber comes from a goat–probably cashmere–and contains the outer guard hairs that look and feel just like human hair to me. There’s plenty of woolier stuff in there, too, but the little locks of hair make for an interesting texture. See the picture above.

The first step is placing bits of fiber onto one of the carding paddles. Here you can see the rough, curly pieces of fiber snagged onto the curved teeth of the carding paddle. This paddle I balance against my left thigh while pulling the fiber onto the other paddle in my right hand. As the fiber is transfered from one paddle to the other, the teeth pull and straighten the individual fibers.

After a couple of exchanges

Notice how much fluffier and straight the fibers are now after a couple of passes from one paddle to the other? Once the fiber appears ready, I can lift them in one long, somewhat flat sheet of wool that I roll in a somewhat spiral fashion from one end to the other.

All carded and ready to roll

The resulting tube of fiber is called a rolag. Here is a pile of rolags I made this morning while listening to NPR.


From these rolags, I spun a wiry, hairy yarn. The consistency of the fiber was slick and slippery, and I experimented with a couple of different techniques. I finally settled on a modified inchworm technique, pulling out a few fibers at a time with my left hand and smoothing the yarn as I went.

Spinning fiber into single ply

The spinning went fast, and before I knew it, I’d used up all my rolags! The resulting yarn isn’t perfect. The fibers tended to slip past each other as I drew it out little by little, creating tiny bumps called slubs. Luckily, another friend gave me a pile of back issues of Spin-Off Magazine. If you are at all interested in spinning or weaving or simply knitting with handspun yarn, take a peek at this informative and colorful publication.

Looking through the back issues, I made a happy discovery: slubs are cool! In fact, I found a number of how-to articles teaching experienced spinners how to create these slubby yarns on purpose.
Apparently, as you become more adept at spinning, the muscles in your hand get into the habit of making nice, smooth, even yarn–a good thing when you want perfect, beautiful skeins. This muscle memory become a handicap, however, when you decide to try your hand making funky “art yarn” full of bumps and twists and uneven textures. I’ve decided to consider my beginner yarn as art yarn and stop beating myself up for the imperfections. After all, I may never be able to make natural-looking slubs again!

Single ply on bobbin

Here is the yarn on the bobbin. I will work for a few more hours making rolags and will continue to fill the bobbin. When I’ve filled the bobbin, I will decide whether to make a double ply yarn by twisting two strands together, use the yarn as a single ply, or maybe even try to navajo ply–looping the yarn over itself from one strand. Maybe Laura can help me decide which would be the best treatment for this kind of fiber. I can get a pretty good idea of what the double ply would look like by pulling out the end section of the yarn and letting it twist back onto itself.

Test for double ply

Isn’t that cute? I’ve already thought of a use for this fuzzy yarn. It will be perfect for accent rows on a striped hat I will create from various balls of my beginner yarns. I’ve even thought of a name for this dark, shiny maroon yarn–Cherry Holler.

Which makes me think of chocolate-covered cherries.

Which makes me wonder how it would look plied with a dark brown fiber . . . oh, dear, you can see where this is leading.

Next week, tune in for a blog about unusual, local gifts for the holidays. Enjoy your present-wrapping, egg-nog drinking, carol-singing and whatever it is you do between now and your solstice-tradition of choice. That’s it for today . . . Outside the Box.

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