I adore works in progress—especially of the textile variety. Bits of half-embroidered cloth poking out of a workbasket or unblocked lace laid aside in a knitting bag have so much potential. They have always seemed wonderful to me, lying in their suspended state waiting for the maker’s return.This love of unfinished work is something that I’ve been thinking about this summer.
While I was teaching at the Michigan League of Handweavers Conference in early June, I was able spend a bit of time with several instructors I had not met before—such a pleasure! One of the most memorable moments for me was when weaver, dyer, and designer Mary Sue Fenner introduced us to some of the garments she was making using other people’s abandoned projects. The very idea struck me in such a visceral way that I nearly lept out of my chair. I had been walking around the edges of these ideas in my head for years, and Mary Sue’s work gave me a nudge to consider what is special about the sometimes messy journey between cast-on and bind-off.
Unfinished Battenburg lace finds a new purpose. Blouse by Mary Sue Fenner. Photo: Kate Larson.
Where two tablecloths meet. Blouse by Mary Sue Fenner. Photo: Kate Larson.
Tablecloth dyed with steel, coffee, and tea. Blouse by Mary Sue Fenner. Photo: Kate Larson.
Linen jacket dyed with steel, coffee, and tea. Photo: Mary Sue Fenner
Over the last ten years or so, I’ve found that teaching knitting and spinning is as much about helping people navigate the learning process as it is about explaining technique. When a panicked knitter hands me needles with the first four inches of her or his very first sweater, the problem isn’t just a dropped stitch, or too many stitches, or a twisted cast-on. We are also coming up against our expectations of ourselves, our disappointments and frustrations, the visions of ourselves creating something beautiful that have for the moment been obscured. There is nothing that gives me more pleasure than smoothing out that path, one dropped stitch at a time.
Much of my own work is done on deadlines and in semi-secret for publication, and I get out of the habit of sharing my not-so-secret work as it is happening. So, I thought I would start doing just that. I consider it such a privilege to share in the journey from raw materials to finished textile with so many of you, and I’ll welcome you to share a bit of mine.
I purchased this fiber from Betty at Little Shop of Spinning in Fort Wayne, Indiana, several years ago. It is a blend of grey wool (something like Shetland, it seems) and Tunis, which was dyed bright yellow. When the two were blended into a roving, the result was a heathered spring green and grey effect. I loved it! I spun it using a woolen draw (long draw) and plied it into a soft 3-ply yarn. Then I fulled the yarn (as in, I shocked it with hot and cold water and agitated it a bit). It was slow to full, so I wasn’t in danger of felting it overmuch. The final yarn will be a nice balance of durability and loft that I wouldn’t have achieved if I had simply added more twist to the fibers.
I’m making a fall jumper (sweater) with a few mirrored cables and a squarish neck. At least that is the plan right now—wish me luck!
Archbold, Ohio. September 24‒27
Now in its second year, the Fiber Arts Fest at Sauder Village in northwest Ohio has grown by leaps and bounds. This year, the living-history museum welcomes five instructors with workshops in spinning, knitting, dyeing, and weaving. Add great vendors into the mix, and you have the perfect weekend. The venue also has its own hotel (complete with plenty of knitting alcoves), so you can stay onsite or just come to spend the day. Visit the website for registration and accomodation details. What I’ll be teaching: Wool Breeds Short Course
Sheep around the world are beautifully diverse. Join us for an introduction to a range of sheep breeds and the characteristics of their wool. You will have a chance to handle fleeces and yarns from primitive, long wool, down-type, medium, and fine wool sheep. Kate will offer tips on choosing the right wool type for your next project and resources for finding breed-specific fibers. Leave class with a notebook of the breeds covered in class and a better understanding of how wool type impacts the durability, resilience, and drape of your textiles. A Fine Thread: Spinning for Lace Spinning Handpainted Fibers
Asheville, North Carolina. October 30, 31, November 1
SAFF is a longtime favorite among the fiber folks who travel around the country visiting festival after festival. Asheville is not only beautiful in the fall with amazing restaurants at every turn, it has a dedicated and unique community of textile artists, fiber producers, and instructors. I’m excited to be returning again this year! Workshop registration is now open–visit the website for details. A Fine Thread: spinning for lace
Lace yarns are a diverse group that can be created using a variety of spinning techniques and fibers. Lace can be spun woolen or worsted, with a high or low twist, or used as singles or plied yarns. This class will help you combine these elements of yarn design with the right fiber to get the yarn you want. We will work with a variety of wools, a few luxury surprises, and discuss selecting fleeces and adjusting your wheel for lace spinning.
Dorset Buttons: A needlework tradition Cheviot Wool: Bouncy Sheep, Bouncy Yarns Spinning Luxury Blends Spinning for Crewel Embroidery
I’m excited to be returning to teach again for the Medina guild! Spinning Luxury Fibers
Cashmere, camel, silk, and yak—the range of prepared luxury fibers we modern spinners have at our fingertips would astound our textile predecessors. Today, we often find these fibers in blends—merino and cashmere, silk and yak, the enticing list goes on and on. How we spin silk is typically different from how we might spin yak— how should we spin a blend of the two? This workshop will introduce you to a variety of luxury blends and methods to spin these special fibers to get the yarns you want.
My 2016 schedule is filling quickly. If you are interested in inviting me to teach at an event or for your guild, contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org. I love to travel!
Last night, lambing season officially came to a close with a happy ending–an easy birth (albeit late!) and a single buck lamb.
I typically begin lambing in March so that the lambs are born when it’s time to begin grazing our spring pastures. I aimed for a later window this year so the lambs wouldn’t begin to arrive until I returned from teaching at Interweave Yarn Fest in Loveland, Colorado. It’s been an unusual lamb crop with primarily single buck (male) lambs, whereas in the past, twin ewe lambs has been the typical trend. One never knows!
While the lambs are very young, I keep the group in a pasture just outside the barn. This gives them a chance to learn about flocking. The lambs will often play together, wandering farther from their mothers as they get older. A small, safe paddock allows them to practice bouncing with their buddies, realize that their mother is no longer in sight, and learn how to find her again without panicking.
The first lamb born this year was a buck who came into the world ready to make it his very own. I named him Per Hansa after the main character in Ole Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth(1924)–afascinating and important book about a fictional group of Norwegian immigrants who settle in the Dakota Territory. When Per Hansa looks out across the prairie, he sees endless opportunity. He also has a good friend, Hans Olsa, who is a very large, kind man. So, my second lamb, who is large and lumbering makes a very good Hans. (The three images at the top are of Hans exploring the wide world for the first time.)
Now that all of the lambs are born, they will be heading out to the larger pastures. I’ll share a video soon!
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!