Part of the fun behind raising your own sheep, is that you know who wore your sweater first. One caveat is that shearing sheep does not harm the animals, and is essential to their health and well-being. At the same time, sheep often enjoy being sheared as they end up being 6-8lbs lighter, and it is far easier to go through doorways and gates.
For this project, I have the personal challenge of going from fleece to sweater in 3 months. This will entail carding and spinning enough fiber to make roughly 1260 yards of sport-weight yarn from 600 grams of fiber. If I decide to alter the cardigan to be longer, I will likely need at least an extra 100 grams or 210 yards of yarn.
This is also my first time attempting to remotely follow a pattern of any kind, let alone a sweater, so it should be very interesting. For the pattern, I am using the cable knit cardigan from (sponsored) Blueprint’s Celtic Cables course. So far, I have found the course to have several good tips and tricks for knitting cables and fixing cable problems and I am looking forward to getting more crazy with cables as this project progresses.
At this point, I have one beautiful washed fleece sitting and waiting to be carded into batts for spinning. I have two bobbin’s worth of batts sitting waiting for me to spin them, and one skein of yarn waiting to be wound into a ball and used to check the gauge.
Steps in Going from Sheep to Sweater:
If you have ever thought it would be interesting to go from sheep to sweater, there are a few steps you should take to make sure you end up with the best results possible.
Find a Good Fleece:
This is imperative if you want go have a good sweater. If you are shopping sheared fleece start with checking how the fleece handles, and it’s breed. A luster breed will have a courser fleece than a fine breed, but luster wool is easier to work with than fine. Try to choose a fleece that is a balance between the two extremes, with decent lock length and moderately fine crimp/softness.
After choosing a fleece, make sure that you have tested the fleece strength. To test, take a lock of wool, and hold the tip end in one hand and the butt/cut end in the other. Tug sharply. If the lock breaks, the wool is weak and will end up splitting and breaking when you are carding it. If the lock does not break, the tip does not split, and it retains it’s shape, you have a good strong fleece to work with.
All fleece, unless it is from a coated-flock, will contain some vegetable matter (or VM). Most of the VM will come out in the washing, picking, and carding stages of processing. Anything that remains after carding can easily be picked out while you are spinning.
Wash the Fleece:
Hopefully the fleece you bought was skirted already, but if not you should skirt the fleece before washing it. To skirt the fleece, spread the wool fleece out on an old bed sheet and check the edges for large sections of clumped and sticking together wool. Not mild tip-sticking together, but the whole lock being a clumped mess of mud, manure, and generally yuck.
After skirting, it is time to wash this fleece. If you are thinking “why did I let myself get talked into this” right now, you are not alone. Fill half of a double sink with hot water, as hot as your taps will put out. Make sure to wear gloves during this process, as otherwise you might burn yourself. Add dish soap to the water, rip off a large clump of wool, and dump it in the hot water.
Gently swish the wool around for a bit, the water should start turning brown with dirt, and then transfer to a drain-able container (such as a colander). Keep going until all the fleece has gone through this first sink.
Then empty the sink, refill with straight tap-hot water, add more soap, and send it all through again. Repeat a third time, then do a repeat that is minus the soap. By now, the water should be running relatively clear. If it is not, run the fleece through another rinse cycle.
The hot water will melt and remove the lanolin coating the wool, and give the fleece a softer handle. During this process you should be careful not to use any cold water as that will shock the fleece and can cause felting. Also, the swishing should be gentle, avoid any heavy agitation as it can also cause the cut-end of the fleece to felt.
Spread the fleece over an old bed sheet on a drying rack, and remember to stir up the fleece so that it dries rapidly. You may need more than one drying station depending on the size of the fleece.
Carding Your Beautiful Fleece:
The first step in carding any fleece is actually picking it, by hand if you don’t have a picker. To pick fleece by hand, take any lock and hold it by the tip and butt end in one hand. With your other hand, pull the fibers on the side of the lock, they should fan out and when you are finished it should resemble a slightly fluffy woolly cloud. One the picking is done, it is a less mind-numbing job if you watch a movie during it, you can send your wool through the nearest drum carder, wild carder, or set of carding combs.
In part two of this 3 month series, we will discuss turning your beautifully carded fleece into some awesome yarn. Including how to spin to the grist you want, spinning with only one bobbin, and balancing your yarn’s twist.
Back To You:
Remember, we live in a world with a disconnect of where our clothing and food come from. Even Prime Ministers forget that the meat at the grocery store had to come from a farm. Taking a wool fleece from sheep to sweater requires time and dedication, but it is also a beautiful reminder of where our clothing comes from. This is an awesome project for home-schoolers, and anyone who wants to get back to the roots of where our clothing comes from. For the home-schoolers out there, remember children’s sweaters are far quicker to knit than adult sweaters, and kids can be really helpful with picking and carding the wool (and even spinning it, if you don’t mind slubs!).
Have you ever gone from sheep to sweater, sheep to shawl, or from back to back (as some of my friends call this process)?
Leave a comment! I love hearing what you think.