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Journey Wheel

Hemp, hemp, hurrah!

Sometimes controversial, always strong, and in this case a catalyst for creativity.

Hemp has been around since before recorded history. It has been speculated that our first printed books were made with hemp paper. I's uses range from medicinal to recreational, and everything in between. (We've all heard that George Washington was a hemp farmer, right?)

With new processing techniques, much to the chagrin of purist linen lovers high and low, hemp yarn has been making a lasting impression on the fiber world. Revered for its durability, admired for its sustainability, used for its versatility and loved for its accessibility. It is an all-round fiber lover's dream.

My personal favorite way to spin hemp is when it has been blended on a drum carder (no distaff needed.) With fibers that will add color, compliment its strength and hold up to the rigors of setting the twist on a plant fiber. I've found the easiest way to do this is by simply taking  hemp top (available from Louet sales, USA) & blending it with equal parts recycled silk sari bits (available from the wool peddler.)

Before beginning to blend everything up, it is imperative to cut up the sari into bite-sized bits, removing all knots, selvages and other surprises that may be lurking in the pile of eye candy. (An activity best saved for Thursday night TV watching.)

This is vital for two reasons. First, longer bits will essentially get tangled around the drum of your drumcarder. Not fun. Two, bits longer than 3 or 4 inches are unreasonably hard to draft. (Again, not fun.)

With that necessary evil in the past, it is time for drum carding fun.

Mix it up

I like to run the fibers on the carder in alternating layers. I take equal weights of the hemp top and sari bits, starting with hemp, then I add sari, back and forth, until the drum is full. 

To ensure a thorough blending, I like to run the batts thru the carder again and again. Four, sometimes five times. Of course, your tastes may vary, and the yarn you envision creating may not call for such an even distribution of the fibers.

(Remember to remove the batts with care, as those little bits like to fly away.)

Spin it like you stole it

There isn't anything very hard, or even tricky about spinning this type of concoction. In fact, it lends itself eloquently to being a good transitional blend, for when you are ready to spread your spinning wings and try things other than wool (or if you are one of those unfortunate souls allergic to wool. Being carded, it drafts smoothly. It can take a lot of twist, and no matter what you do, it is going to be pretty. A great confidence booster.

Wheel/Spindle prep.
If you have multiple flyers and ratios for your wheel, here is where you would want to switch to a lace flyer and set your wheel at a higher ratio. If you don't have a lace flyer, a regular one will work just the same. (Essentially, lace flyers and higher ratios eliminate a lot of treadle work. It is entirely possible to spin a high-twist yarn on low ratios with bulky flyers. It only takes a bit more effort on behalf of the spinstress.)

The same 'rule' applies for spindle spinning this hempy mixture. A balanced light-weight spindle will best produce a fine, high-twist, strong yarn.

A good rule of thumb, especially helpful if you are spinning on a spindle, or on a wheel that only has one ratio: the thinner your yarn, the more twist you will need. I've found that I like these fibers best spun at a sport weight or thinner.

The yarn I made here was spun firmly, yet not overspun or corkscrewed.  An even handed laceweight knitting yarn, at 24 wraps per inch (WPI), 5 twists per inch (TPI) with a twist angle of 15. (For more on measuring twist angles, read the "Get Spun' article, coming in the summer issue of Knittyspin.)

Getting to it.....
For starters, I would highly recommend putting a pillow case or a piece of fabric on your lap to catch the sheddings. You will be glad you did, as the little bits and threads like to roam.

As with any batt of fiber, gently rip off a manageable strip, and get to it. To insure a good union with the leader, I spin the first few inches smaller and tighter than what the yarn is going to be. After that it is only a matter of 'spinning rhythm' -- matching your draft with the treadle. (Or, drafting to match the spin of your spindle.) Gently smooth the fibers into the twist, but don't force them.

*If this was straight hemp I most likely would employ wet spinning. Wet spinning allows you to get all of the ends of the fiber into the twist, to produce a smoother & subsequently softer yarn. With the addition of the sari fibers to this brew, I've found I'd rather not fight the fibers into shape. Allowing some ends (and even some noils) to roam free adds an exciting dimension to the finished yarn.

Wet spinning
Wet spinning isn't really "wet". I think a more accurate name would be "misted" or "slightly damp".
This technique is very helpful in achieving a smoother, softer yarn. The moisture on your fingers will enable you to gently manipulate the ends of the fibers into the twist.

To do this, slightly dampen your fingers on the hand that is controlling the twist, either with a spray bottle/plant mister, or a few drops of water from a bowl or cup. Once you get to spinning, you will see how once the fibers touch the dampness, a bit of spinning magic occurs. Some spinners use natural oils such as lanolin as their lubricant. It's all a matter of personal tastes and finding what works best for you.

Weave in ends [see pics at left]
When I come to the end of my fibers, I finish the bobbin almost the same way I started it. I spin the remaining inches tighter and finer than the yarn proceeding it. With an added twist. I loop the last wee bit around my finger, give a few more treadles and allow it to join in the twist above it. Giving the yarn a nice, somewhat 'clean' end.

This method of finishing can be used with any type of fiber... I'm not sure if it is "proper" or not, as I've never heard anyone talk about it, it is one of those things that seemed intuitive to me. So, your mileage may vary.

Setting the twist
Once your yarn is wound off the bobbin, you will need to set the twist. Setting the twist on a plant fiber uses a different method than with wool.
You will need to give it a quick (a minute or three) bath in some boiling water. (Some plant fibers, especially certain cottons will take longer.) In this case, add a few glugs of vinegar, on occasion the recycled silk sari likes to bleed dye, aqnd the vinegar helps to ‘set’ it. Use some tongs or a large wooden spoon to remove your yarn from the boiling water. Once it has cooled enough to touch, give it a few good whacks & hang to dry. It is perfectly okay to block or weight down plant fibers when they are drying, it won't have any ill effects on your knitting yarn.
Have no fear if it feels a bit rough. Both fibers soften considerably with wear and washing.

Next time someone asks you what your beautiful Clapotis or Calorimetry is made from, you can say "It's made from my hemp yarn!"

If they ask if they can smoke it, say "Sure, it's really great if you enjoy headaches and burning hot smoke in your lungs." And then you can point them to some educational web resources like this "101 uses for hemp"

Have an spinning issue or question you would like to see resolved here? Send email to Symeon.


Symeon Noth lives with her family in the wilds of Vermont. By day she runs her online yarn shop, whist performing jobs such as short order cook, story teller, nurse, judge and jury, teacher, juggler and all round corraller of children. By night she has been known to drink beverages of fermented grapes and lift elephants over her head.