It’s been a busy spring so far—full of workshops, writing, and woolly beasts. Here are a few highlights:
I had such a wonderful time teaching with Nancy Bush in March. It was a full weekend of spinning, knitting, and embroidering Estonian-inspired handcoverings. Nancy brought a breath-taking pile of embroidered textiles which she has collected during her many travels in Estonia.
I have a new pattern coming out soon. Secret for now, but here is the gorgeous fiber that inspired the project—combed polwarth/silk top from Copper Corgi Fiber Studio. This was a happy spin. More on this soon!
And this is where I can be found right now—in the lambing barn! Most of my sheep have their lambs without assistance, but when they need help, I’m at the ready. So, I try to check on them about every four hours during lambing. Nearly all of the lambs have arrived now, and I’ll post pictures and a video soon. After I get a good night’s sleep, that is!
When I visited Estonia several years ago, I fell head over heels in love with the embroidered textiles I saw in museums and private collections. Estonian embroidery can be found on woven fabrics like linen shirt collars and cuffs, fulled woolen coverlets, and aprons. Other examples adorn knitted pieces, such as mittens, gloves, and the button bands on fitted jackets. It’s fascinating to look carefully at these pieces and see how different types of yarns were used to knit or weave the base and stitch the embroidery. Often the embroidery alone will incorporate several different yarns. Creativity and thrifty use of materials combined to express cultural identity in endlessly captivating ways.
I’m thrilled to announce that author Nancy Bush and I will be offering a workshop in March:
Estonian Island Weekend
The Trading Post for Fiberarts in Pendleton, Indiana March 27, 28, 29, 2015. Join Kate Larson and Nancy Bush for a weekend visit to the world of Estonian spinning and knitting. Our days will be focused on creating Gloves, Mittens or Mitts (your choice) which include interesting Estonian cuffs and can be embellished with traditional embroidery motifs from southern Estonia and one of the most traditional islands, Kihnu. Learn how to spin a wool yarn close to what the Estonians use for their base yarn, and then how to spin several wool embroidery yarns for the embellishments. We will use a variety of different wool fibers from Estonia and closer to home. The course will also cover several Estonian cast ons, some traditional cuff patterns which include colorful lateral braids, and other uniquely Estonian techniques, thumb and finger construction for gloves, as well as mitten and mitt construction, and how to decorate and finish each item. Included in the class will be enough commercial yarn to complete each pattern offered. $345+materials fee. For more details visit the Trading Post. To register, contact Susan Markle at email@example.com.
Skill level: Comfortable knitting in the round on double pointed needles or circulars and beginning spinning skills. No embroidery experience necessary. If you would like to take class with Kate before the workshop to expand or brush-up your skills, join us at the Trading Post on Saturdays. See the schedule here.
Those of you who have spent time with me in the last seven years have probably heard me mention my very special sheep, Joan. I know each of my thirty sheep on sight, but not all have names or interact with me on a daily basis. But greeting Joan with a pat or a hug each day has been my happy practice for years now.
Many flocks have what is often called a leader ewe that acts as a bit of an ambassador between shepherd and flock. (In fact, Icelandic leader sheep are kept as a separate genetic line within the breed.) My dear Joan is a born leader; she’s quick-witted, observant, and quite bossy. She came into the world that way and I’ve never met another sheep like her. She also loves cats.
Some people might take issue with the idea of a “smart sheep.” From my experiences in working with flocks of different breeds, I am amazed at how much the behavior and social patterns of sheep can vary. Joan, self-appointed flock princess, oversees all the activities in her realm in true Border Leicester fashion. I’ll tell you about one of her more interesting and helpful activities…
Joan has a shrill alert call that she only makes when something is amiss. If a sheep jumps a fence or is ill, she starts pacing and calling to us. During lambing time, I know if there is a ewe in labor before I get to the barn because Joan has rung the alarm. I’m lucky to have her help!
So, when I found out that a picture I took of Joan on pasture would be on the cover of the winter Spin-Off, I was pretty excited.
I wrote an article for this issue about one of my favorite topics: “Leicester Sheep: A short history of a modern longwool.” These wonderful breeds (Leicester Longwool, Border Leicester, and Bluefaced Leicester) have changed and evolved over time as they’ve adapted to new environments and purposes. So, I wanted to pair each breed description with a profile of a specific flock. Our choices as shepherds can dramatically impact how a flock looks, their health and habits in just a few generations.
The article includes profiles of three amazing flocks, which I’ll include below. I also asked Bluefaced Leicester breeder Robina Koenig about her flock and what she looks for in these special sheep.
Tumble Creek Farm
Robina has been raising Bluefaced Leicesters in central Oregon since 1996. The Tumble Creek flock was developed using US genetics as well as UK bloodlines via artificial insemination. When it comes to fleece, the flock is selected for “outstanding softness and handle, staple length and luster.” Robina says, “Blues have maternal traits, carcass quality, and desirable fiber to talk about for pages. These are the animals that do well in the show ring and whose traits should be passed to future generations. For my flock, I like both white and natural colored for fleece sales, rovings and yarns. But an important part of the BFL flock is their gentle personality, calmness, and curiosity. Several times I have walked through my flock as among friends for inspiration.”
Welcome! I’m excited to have been invited to join the Spinzilla blog tour. The purpose behind the Spinzilla competition during Spinning and Weaving Week, Oct 6‒12, is not only to learn more about handspinning, but to learn more by doing. When it comes to craft, theory is only truly useful when applied—when skills are honed through practice. Spinzilla urges us to make more time in our busy schedules to grab our spindles or sit down to our wheels and get spinning.
Much of the way I approach textiles is framed by my background in agronomy. I studied soil chemistry at university, and while it might not seem that clay minerals have much to do with handspun sweaters, the spirit of their study is similar. We can take the measure of a soil in many ways: by studying the available nutrients, digging a hole and looking at how the soil formed in pre-history, and on and on. We can’t be certain how the soil will change over time due to the action of weather, soil organisms, and other factors, but our measurements can allow us to make some assumptions and educated guesses about what the future will hold. Textiles are the very same. Planning and creating a textile is a blend of science and art and educated guesses.
As we all start gathering fiber and planning projects for Spinzilla, you might be asking how much fiber you need to stockpile for certain projects. When we are new to spinning and ask more experienced handspinners this kind of question, we usually receive the oft uttered “It depends…” response. And it does. There isn’t a short answer, and I can’t show you a chart that will tell you exactly how many ounces of fiber you will need to knit a sweater. Why? Because there are so many variables, not the least of which is the differences in our unique handspun yarns. A skein is the product of our fiber, our wheel, our technique—and sometimes our mood! The more experienced we become, the more subtle the changes and the more control we have over them. But we leave our own unique fingerprint on the yarns we create, and we can find a bit of ourselves in their texture.
I can’t answer your query, “How much fiber do I need?”—but you can.
There is always room in handspinning for the “two pounds ought to do it” approach. However, if you are making a special project and you don’t want to run out of yarn, you might want some more concrete figures. To estimate how much fiber is needed to make a given project, you need to determine:
(a) how many yards you will need to spin, and
(b) how many yards of finished yarn can be spun from the fiber you would like to use.
If you have already picked a project to spin for, you likely know how many yards you need. For knit and crochet, check out the yardage requirements for similar projects. (Ravelry is great for this.) If you are weaving, most beginning weaving books will offer guidance on calculating yardage, as does Alden Amos in the Big Book of Handspinning on pg. 249.
The second thing we need to know is yards per pound, which is also called grist or simply YPP. For a given fiber, the YPP for a finer gauge yarn will be higher than that of a heavier gauge yarn. (You can get more yards from a merino top if you spin it laceweight rather than bulky, right?) The reason this measurement is so useful to us spinners is that it goes beyond gauge—it takes the density of a yarn into account as well. The denser the yarn, the fewer yards you will get from a pound of fiber. Many folks use a yarn balance to determine YPP.
Just this week I have been planning a handspun Among the Birches shawl. I started with a 4 ounce braid of merino top, and I wanted to find out if I had enough fiber to make a slightly narrower version of the shawl from fulled singles. I spun up several samples of singles and fulled them. I pulled out my yarn balance and snipped a handspun sample until the balance arm was level. Then I repeated this twice more. The more samples you do, the more accurate the reading.
[Note: The balance is designed to weigh a sample of your finished yarn. Here, my finished yarn is a singles yarn, but if I was planning a three-ply yarn, I would use a snippet of three-ply yarn that had been washed and fully dried.]
Now, you are ready to measure your samples.
Without tension, this sample measured 26 inches, under tension it measured 27 inches. Multiply that value by 100 and I have a yardage range of 2,600 to 2,700 YPP. My 4 ounce top (a quarter pound) should give me about 650-675 yards based on my samples. The pattern calls for 900, so I should have enough for a scarf version. Off I go!
It’s also important to remember that our measurements are only as exact as our testing samples and tools. What’s a spinner to do? Practice, of course. The more yards that pass through your fingertips, the more adept you will be at understanding small differences in your yarns. And in turn, you will be more comfortable with the fine art of the educated guess. So, go forth and spin!
Over 50 teams are participating in the Spinzilla competition this year and team member registration is now open. Team spinners can sign up for their favorite team until Sept 22, and rogue spinners can sign up until Oct 3. See the Spinzilla website to register. In 2013, over 600 spinners competed on 27 teams and as individual rogue spinners. They collectively spun nearly 1.4 million yards of yarn. Come join the fun!
Norway is known for its tales of trolls, but a long oral tradition also exists surrounding the Hidden Folk. Huldra the elf-maiden, who is sometimes helpful and sometimes dangerous, is one of the best known characters. Huldra appears in the novel Kristin Lavransdatter as the elf-maiden that attempts to lure a young Kristin into the forest.
“She stooped over the water and saw her own dark image rise from the bottom and grow clearer as it came to meet her—and then in the mirror of the pool she saw another figure standing among the birches opposite and bending toward her. In haste she got upon her knees and gazed across. At first she thought it was the rock and the bushes clinging round its foot. But all at once she was aware of a face amid the leaves—there stood a lady, pale, with waving flaxen hair—and great, light-grey eyes and wide pink nostrils. . . She was clad in something light, leaf-green, and branches and twigs hid her up to the broad breasts, which were covered over with brooches and sparkling chains.” —From Kristin Lavransdatter by Nobel Laureate Sigrid Undset.
So, when I decided to design a project for the upcoming publication,Enchanted Knits, Undset’s Huldra surfaced in my mind. I set to work developing a lace pattern with a reversible birch leaf motif.
Written in 1920, Kristin Lavransdatter is an epic historical novel set in fourteenth-century Norway. The story follows Kristin from childhood through a lifetime’s struggle with love and loss. Author Sigrid Undset (1882-1949), the daughter of a Norwegian archaeologist, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928.
Border Leicester sheep are wonderful grazers, becoming ever more proficient as they mature. At first glance, they may appear to nibble the forages indiscriminately, but they are actually feeling the plants with their lips and selecting what they want to eat. This isn’t as obvious when they are out on lush pasture where everything is tasty, but is easier to see when they are on rougher forage. I love to watch (and hear) them carefully select and munch at speed. Though it’s hard to hear in this video, there is a lip-smacking noise that the sheep often make as part of the selecting process. Listening to thirty sheep making this little pop, pop, pop noise all at once is impressive!
In this video is little Vina at three months, followed by Joan, a professional grazer if I ever saw one! They are in the back corner of a pasture that is over-mature (as happens when haymaking is late due to a wet spring/summer), so there are plenty of weeds, which the farmer regrets, but the sheep eat them with relish. Those of you in my local knitting and spinning classes will have probably heard tales of Joan’s noble ferocity and gallant nature. She’s also a bit piggy. Vina is her granddaughter.
I am using portable fencing to create small paddocks within the pasture. You can see the movable posts on the far side of the paddock. Each day, the sheep get a new strip of grass, because as we all know, grass is greener on the other side. This keeps them moving forward and reduces the area that they regraze.
Textiles—a heady word that encompasses cloth from all times, all places, and for all purposes. It connects everything from farm fields to Haute Couture, pre-historic peoples to glorious textured yarns spun with art batts. Every corner of the fiber-centric community that I am excited to be a part of is filled with interesting people asking interesting questions. Exploring even one textile technique or tradition can be a life’s work. And the people who immerse themselves in learning, traveling, and creating textiles tend to be passionate about sharing the object of their passion. We are so lucky that they do!
Have you seen the current issue of Spin-Off? It’s filled to the brim with world textile stories written by people driven to learn more. Ercil Howard-Wroth shares her trip to Tinkuy, Peru; Linda Ligon details thigh spinning in Mexico; and so much more. I was excited to have the opportunity to include Norway’s embroidered handcoverings in the mix. I’ve talked a bit about Norwegian handcoverings here and here, but editors Amy Clarke Moore and Anne Merrow gave me the opportunity to share more about the history of these special textiles and include a pattern for spinning and knitting your very own embroidered handcoverings.
The Telemark Rose Gloves combine elements of many different extant gloves from Telemark, Norway, that I have been lucky enough to see in museum collections and in print and online resources. You can browse through some of Telemark’s remarkable embroidered handcoverings in the Digitalt Museum online collection. For more information, check the pattern details on Ravelry.
Spring has sprung—and the lambs are bouncing! I have spent much of the last few weeks in the barn. I’ll still spend (too) much of my time with the sheep in the next month—not as a vigilant midwife, but for the sheer pleasure of watching the lambs grow and learn and play.
There always seems to be one or two lambs in every bunch that loves to strike a charming pose for the camera—Retty is the girl of the year. You can see her here on the left. Marian isn’t more than a few minutes older, but likes to fuss over her smallish sister.
Here in Indiana, we should already be seeing glimpses of spring by now, but alas… This winter has been especially cold and snowy, so we are all anxiously awaiting warmer weather. I typically schedule my ewes to lamb when the grass will be ready to graze, so they should start to arrive in mid-April. While we await their arrival, I posted a video of the lambs from last year. Nothing brings warmth and cheer quite like bouncing, joyful lambs—enjoy!