Knitty: little purls of wisdom

Thinking (and Spinning and Knitting) about Breeds
beauty shot

spacer photos: Into the Whirled

There is nothing that I love more than to be shopping at a fiber festival and to be faced with a booth overflowing with choices of braids of fiber to spin. It used to be that the selection was only in the color -- mountains of braids in every variation of color that a dyer could think of in Merino or BFL top.

Now, if you are a wool spinner, have you noticed, the choices are growing beyond color -- more breeds are available than ever before. You don't have to buy a fleece and process it yourself to be able to spin different breeds of sheep.

While I can pick, process and dye my own wool, my favorite thing is spinning the work of dyers whose joy it is to create amazing colors. I like the spinning and the knitting (crocheting, weaving, stitching) part.

With the advent of more choices come more decisions. Now a spinner not only has to decide 'purple and orange or green and gold' but BFL, Polwarth or Teeswater.

The fleece of each breed of sheep, whether processed by hand or machine, has unique properties that will add to your final yarn and whatever it is you make with it.

The last fiber show I attended, I counted 20 different breeds and blends in commercially processed and handdyed top. For my experiments here I chose to explore three breeds easy to find at fiber shows. Breeds that show a range of characteristics that make a difference to your yarn and knitting.

I chose Merino, Corriedale and Wensleydale. Cris at Into the Whirled sent me all three fibers, processed into top and dyed in the same colorway, Element Number 5. I treated each fiber the same and made two yarns, a 2-ply woolen drafted and a 2-ply worsted drafted, both plied to balance and then knit into a stockinette sample.

Why those three fibers? They are easy to find for one, but mostly because they are representative of three breed groups. Loosely classified they are Fine wool, Medium wool and Longwools. ‘Medium' has become a catch-all category and most spinners who delve deeper into breed study will break sheep breed down into 6 or more categories. If you really want to know about sheep breeds read Deb Robson's fine book Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook. For my sample purposes, and for Corriedale, Medium works.

Let's some basics on each fiber then we'll see how that translates into spinning and knitting.

Breed category: long
Staple length: 6"-12"
Crimp pattern: wavy
Fd/Mr*: 30-36
Feel: strong, few can wear next to the skin
Luster: yes, thank you very much
Breed category: medium
Staple length: 3-6"
Crimp pattern: medium
Fd/Mr*: 25-35
Feel: medium, some can wear next to the skin
Luster: medium
Breed category: fine wool
Staple length: 3"-5'
Crimp pattern: tight crimp
Fd/Mr*: 11-26
Feel: soft and sooooo soft
Luster: matte

*Fiber diameter/Micron range: the smaller the number, the finer and softer the wool

My big question was how do the different attributes of breeds affect our spinning and ultimately our knitting? What happens and why? There are certainly ways to counteract what the breed wants to do naturally, but for today we're looking at spinning and knitting as the breed is inclined to do.

Even after spinning for many, many years, I am still entranced first and foremost by color. That's not to say that sometimes I don't go hunting for a fiber or fiber blend for a particular project or study, but if I am just shopping, I look first then touch.

Here are our three fibers in braids. The colorway is the same and while the basic colors are the same, each fiber looks a little different.

Wensleydale, because of its wavy crimp and larger scales on each individual fiber, has deep shiny color. The scales coat and protect each individual fiber and are larger on most longwools. They are what reflect light creating shine or luster. Corriedale has rich color with just a bit of shine. If you draft Corriedale worsted with a worsted preparation, it can bring out more shine, but never as much as Wensleydale. Fine fibers like Merino have small scales that don't reflect much light, and the tight crimp and short staple contribute to giving the color a softer, lighter matte look.

After being thoroughly enchanted by a colorway, some of the next things that spinners think about are skin and spin. How does it feel and how will it behave when it's spun?

How does it feel and how and where can you wear it?

I am talking about commercially processed and hand-dyed fibers only. If you choose your fleece and hand prepare it, you may get much softer spinning fiber than the average commercially processed braid. Most commercially processed braids may be made up of a single breed, but many, many sheep fleeces, often not from the same flock, are pooled together and processed in large batches. There is a growing movement by hand dyers to control quality of the fiber and yarn they sell by working with shepherds and smaller mills to pick fiber and process in smaller batches.

Wensleydale doesn't like to bend because of its long staple and thicker diameter. Especially in commercially processed fiber it has a high, what Clara Parkes calls 'prickle factor', fiber and yarn that feels scratchy or prickly to many people.

Not for next to the skin wear for most, but it makes gorgeous lustrous lace shawls and long-wearing home accessories.
Corriedale is a fiber probably most people can wear next to their skin. Maybe not next to their neck as a cowl, but as hats, mittens, gloves socks. Like a lot of the middle of the road, all purpose fibers Corriedale can be used for almost anything. It's hard-wearing enough for bags and home accessories and supple enough for kid's sweaters. Where Corriedale comes from can make a difference. I have some from New Zealand that is softer than any I've found in North America. Merino is the standard of soft that most spinners judge other fibers by. Merino is so soft, it can be spun and knit into a camisole and worn all winter without a tickle or scratch for many people. Merino is frequently used for knitting for babies.

All of the fiber I used is top, which means the fiber fibers are mostly aligned. Commercial top is great to spin a worsted yarn smooth and on the denser side. When I spin top with a woolen draft it never gets completely fluffy and airy like a commercial roving would. Some spinners call spinning a worsted preparation with a woolen draft semi-woolen. But semi-woolen could also be spinning a woolen preparation with a worsted draft. I have heard and read both. I just like to be clear and say, “I'm spinning a worsted prep with a woolen draft". I also like the word ‘woolenesque', but sometimes I'm just silly. I could have spun the yarns with a woolen draft from the fold (and in one case I did) to add more air to the yarn, but I didn't want to mess with the color flow.

I spun all the yarns to a light worsted/aran weight. I always look at or think about staple length before I start spinning, because it helps me get a good start before fine tuning my spinning. In this photo, you can see the staple lengths in breeds varies a lot.

The quick and dirty fact of staple lengths is this: The longer the staple length, the further apart your hands should be when drafting. I spun the Merino right after I spun the Wensleydale and didn't keep this in mind, so my top just kept coming apart before I could get twist in it. The longer the staple length, the less twist a yarn needs to hold together. I frequently put a shorter staple's worth of twist into a fiber like Wensleydale and come out with a yarn so tough and wiry that I could use it as shoelaces for my Doc Martens.

Wensleydale didn't want to split evenly vertically before spinning; we had words. I spun woolen draft from the fold, to add as much air as I could. Visually they are both fuzzy, with the woolen yarn slightly fuzzier. Wensleydale wanted to discuss with me, repeatedly, how it didn't want to be thicker yarn. The feel of both yarns as far as softness is identical with the woolen yarn feeling slightly lighter. Look at the shine and the depth of color in the worsted yarn -- it's beautiful. I wish I had spun this at a fingering weight.

Corriedale was a breeze. It would have let me spin it any way to any thickness, so for me that makes it most interesting and a great fiber for newer spinners. It's also great for experimenting or practicing drafting styles that you're not so agile with or practicing super fat or super thin spinning. It is a most obliging fiber.
The worsted yarn was smoother and shinier, a lot shinier than the woolen yarn. The woolen yarn is lofty with a bit of fuzz.

Merino has a lot of spinning fans. It was THE big commercially available fiber for a long time, it may be eclipsed by Blue Faced Leicester now, but I'm not sure. It creates a lofty, springy yarn due it's fineness and tight crimp. Merino can be feisty to spin, especially if you are a spinner who likes their yarn very even. When I spin Merino I just try to relax. I am not a spinner who is constantly measuring and eyeballing her yarn to make sure it is absolutely even, so I don't let it get my goat (or sheep). I can't tell a lot of difference between my worsted and woolen spun Merino -- I can tell in this fiber more than the other two the spots where I, even for a few drafts, stopped spinning worsted, and drafted a little woolen in what was supposed to be the worsted yarn. Merino does get fuzzy, I can see a little more loft in the woolen yarn than the worsted. This is a fiber that would have showed a big difference in worsted and woolen if I had spun a woolen preparation woolen. Merino is wonderfully soft and spongy to spin, the crimp seems ever present, no matter how I draft it. It does always seem fragile to me -- that it could easily break or pill. Maybe that's why I always seem to add a little more ply twist to Merino when I spin it.

When I knit these yarns I thought about feel, elasticity, weight, drape, durability, pilling and felting.

Wensleydale was a big yarn, full of personality. My swatches were heavy and drapy. They yarn was fuzzy. I went up a needle size to accommodate the fuzz factor. The yarn wouldn't pill and it would take focused work to get it to felt. This is not soft knitting. At this weight of yarn, I would make a bag with it and I would knit it tighter than I have in my swatches. These swatches have almost no spring. Stitches would not snap back to shape if stretched.

Corriedale had gorgeous stitch definition in both the woolen and worsted swatches. These swatches are discussing sweater patterns with me. There is some sheen to the worsted swatch and it has some drape.I would wear this fabric as a cowl or a scarf -- it's neck soft. It will pill and felt, but that would take effort. It's a rugged wool without being rough or scratchy. There is a reason why lots of commercially produced yarns labeled 'wool' are at least in part Corriedale.

The Merino swatches I want to keep petting -- they are kitten-soft. The stitches are softer looking, but in a lovely way. The swatches are light. They feel like they weigh 25% of what the Wensleydale swatches do and they are bigger. The durability of Merino is variable; these lightly plied swatches would pill and even felt pretty quickly. I wouldn't be surprised to find holes in my knitting if I knit these yarns into something that takes a lot of wear like socks. Both the durability and pilling factors can be counteracted somewhat by adding more ply twist and more plies. Most Merino sock yarn has nylon added to it as well as a high ply twist.

Merino yarn is my favorite yarn to knit into lace. Everything that makes it not as great for hard-wearing things makes it perfect for lace: the loft, the fineness, the softness.

Spinning never stops being interesting to me. The fact that each breed, each fiber, wool or not, that you spin has a personality makes my spinning brain so happy. I hope this gives you things to think of while shopping this fiber show season.


Jillian Moreno is the editor of Knittyspin. She's on the Editorial Advisory board for PLY Magazine. She lives in a house packed with fiber and books.

Be warned, she's a morning person and is disgustingly chipper before 9 am.