Spinning crepe yarn from pencil roving

I’ve posted very little spinning content on my blog in the past few months (bad BlackSheep!) but I’ve been doing odds and ends of spinning, test samples for various projects and people. I started spinning this BFL pencil roving I dyed back in the summer and it’s been sitting on my wheel taking up bobbin space whilst I do the oddments and the longer I leave things, the less I feel like finishing them. Which is a shame really because BFL is one of my favourite wools to work with and these are some of my favourite colours.

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I’ve got more sample spinning to do soon though and potentially quite a big spinning project to fit in with someone else’s schedule which needs me to clear all my bobbins. So although I have a brand new wool I dyed yesterday that’s begging me to start on it, I’m being good and finishing the BFL crepe first!

One of the reasons I had been delayed is that I’d started spinning this with the general idea of blogging about it because this is outside my “default spinning” on two counts and I thought it might be interesting to look at it and why I chose to do this.  I’ve had hand dyed BFL pencil roving in the shop this summer and it’s fun to knit with as chunky yarn, I’ve woven it for a friend as a show sample for her lovely hand dyed pencil rovings but I’d not actually got around to spinning it myself. Having spun up the first two bobbins a while ago, I needed the time to photograph the final bobbin and samples for the blog and just couldn’t find the time. So I apologise for the poor lighting of the following photos, but it’s a very murky overcast October day here and I also really needed both hands to spin with which makes it tricky to take photos – you really need a helpful assistant. Or three hands!! 

Pencil roving is one of the stages of creating commercially spun yarn so, unlike the usual much fatter tops and rovings we spin from, it has a slight twist in it. This twist is in the clockwise direction, also known as “Z” twist. For anyone unfamiliar with the term Z (and S) twist in relation to spinning, it’s called this because if you look at it the angle of the twist is like the middle section of the letter Z – slanting to the right. Imagine a Z overlaid on the roving below.

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Twist in the opposite or anticlockwise direction is known as “S” twist because the angle is like the middle section of the letter S.

Spinners commonly default to spinning their singles in the Z / clockwise direction before plying two or more singles together in the anti-clockwise direction to balance and stabilise the yarn. An S-plied yarn works well for English style knitting where the yarn is carried in the right hand and “thrown” (as opposed to Continental style knitting where the yarn is held in the left hand and “picked”) because as you carry your yarn, a tiny amount of twist is added. For English knitting the twist can slightly unravel Z-plied yarns – some people feel this isn’t a problem but my first attempt at spinning a cable yarn was Z-plied and it was very irritating to knit with as the chunky handspun wasn’t that tightly plied and did indeed unravel as I knit – lesson learned!

To make pencil roving with its inbuilt Z twist easier to spin, it helps to unravel that twist slightly as you draft and makes it easier to handle. Spinning the singles in the Z direction as normal adds twist and means you can end up fighting what’s already in the roving and locking the fibres together – a frustrating spinning experience. So spinning it in the S direction helps to unlock the latent twist and is generally much smoother to draft.

However that does mean you end up with a finished yarn that will be Z-plied … my English-style knitting nemesis from before! So I thought it would be fun to use this for a crepe yarn which is a 3-ply yarn that has 3 stages to it and would allow me to spin 2 of the singles in the S direction and still end up with S-plied yarn at the end for me to knit with. Cunning?!

For detailed information on spinning crepe yarns – or any yarns in fact – I strongly recommend you borrow or preferably buy a copy of the Spinner’s Book of Yarn Design by Sarah Anderson. Sarah is a wonderful teacher both in person and in writing and this is my go-to book when working with yarns other than my standard repertoire. This blog post is more about spinning crepe yarn from pencil roving than a basic crepe yarn tutorial. Really well worth having “…Yarn Design” in your spinning library.

You can spin crepe yarns in either direction but for the sake of the pencil roving subject matter I’m using the following formula:     2 singles spun in S (anticlockwise) direction plied together with twice the amount of plying twist in the Z (clockwise). A third single is spun in the Z (clockwise direction) and then you ply the Z single and the Z 2-ply yarn together in the S (anticlockwise direction) to make a balanced crepe yarn. Got that? Yup, go buy the book – it’s worth it!

So you need your fibre divided up roughly into three sections. I did this by weighing the skein as I wound it into three balls to spin from. As you spin, the twist you release is going to back up in the roving closer to the ball of wool. You can see it twist the roving behind where I’m pinching it off.

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You need to release that twist somehow so I find it helps to break off a section of roving (around 60cm is workable for me but you can go longer or shorter) . You won’t be able to pull tightly twisted roving apart so where you want to break it off, hold the fibre between your hands and untwist it so that the fibres lie parallel instead.

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And then pull them apart, they should drift quite easily…

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The twist will be sitting there but you can then shake it out and let it unravel ready for drafting.

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Another tip for drafting pencil roving is to roll it between your fibre (back) hand as you draft to release the twist as well – this definitely applies to spinning in the Z direction but it helps in the S direction too. (I hold fibre in my left hand but more spinners use their right hand for the fibre supply, so don’t swap over if you do the opposite to me – just carry on as you are!)

As you spin you can control the fibre supply between the heel of your palm and pinkie/ring fingers …

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…which leaves your thumb and forefinger free to control the  draft action as usual – at this point you can add a sneaky little roll of your thumb to the right to untwist it and then draft.

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When you have your S-spun singles ready to ply, remember that you will need twice the amount of plying twist to a normal plied yarn. Italics because this is important!! You don’t want a balanced yarn at this stage because you need latent twist in it to cancel out the twist when you ply it with your final (third) single. This is trickier than you’d think to maintain over the length of the spinning so it might help you to allow a fresh single to twist back on itself for a few inches to create a wee sample to have by you.

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You will need twice the amount of twist to this in your plying – and yes it will feel very odd over-twisting your yarn!! This sample will be handy to check whether you have sufficient twist or if you’ve slipped back into making a lovely balanced yarn out of habit!

The twisty pigtail yarn pinched between my finger and thumb is about right. The balanced (but wrong!) sample is next to it on my hand for comparison.

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So you will fight your instincts and ply a bobbin-full of overtwisted yarn in the Z direction.

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Aargh. Keep going. You can check twist by allowing a little of the yarn to ply back on itself to see how it balances out. If it’s under plied, add more twist. If you end up spinning a whole bobbin without enough twist then you can run it back through your wheel in the same direction to add a bit more – but it’s better to get it in there the first time if you can.

Now you’ll need to spin your third single in the Z direction. This will be harder from pencil roving because of the twist in it but using the tips above – short lengths and rolling it – you’ll be fine. And it’s only one single…

Finally you get to see the results of your labour. Time to play … I mean ply!

You’ll need your Z singles on one bobbin and your Z plied yarn on another. If you’re spinning all this in one session then the yarns might be a bit springy so tensioning your bobbins may help. On the other hand, if your singes/yarn are stale, they may be easier to ply but you won’t see the crepe snapping into place which can help with judging the amount of plying twist. It’s up to you and how much time you have to spin in one session; both ways have bonuses and drawbacks.

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This is quite a poor photo of the sample yarn I’m afraid but it does show the characteristic bobbly effect of the finished crepe technique. Crepe yarns are great fun to spin and you can do different texture and colour variations with them to add to the fun!

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The finished yarn:

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You can use the above tips for spinning ordinary 2-ply yarns too or maybe you can think up some other ways of using pencil roving? Plying it with a glittery commercial thread or using it as a base for other art yarn techniques would be really good fun too!

I’ve just a few skeins of pencil roving left in the shop at BarberBlackSheep – which is why I spun this sample in the first place! – but it’s also occasionally available from other UK dyers too should I have sold out when you want to try some crepe yarn fun yourself!

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October. The trees are not stripped bare, not yet (sorry U2). They are however turning some glorious colours that make my heart sing and I’m struggling not to turn every fibre I dye into a mirror for everything I see around me.

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Sometimes I can’t help myself though when gradients flutter from the hedgerows on my dog walks, begging to be plucked and arranged…

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Yet again, it’s been another kind Autumn. Last year the good weather went on and on into November right up until we’d done some of the hedge laying and then Winter suddenly crashed in with downpours that wouldn’t stop. However, the beginning of this month – so warm and sunny – has given way to fogs and the kind of damp chill mornings that seep into your very bones although thankfully it’s still dry. I’ve layered up on handknits and am turning over possibilities (had I the time) for new garments to cast on. Time for everyone to wrap up now…

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Almost all the apples are now picked and in the cellar waiting for me to find time to crush and juice them. There’s a lot going on just now and they will keep for a bit whilst we turn our attention to things that really can’t delay.

Before the rains come we need to tackle a job that’s been put off for some years. When we built the house the landscaping round it got left and somehow, as so often happens, just never really got finished. Grass grew over the soil and rubble areas, frosts and rains made the square edges of the plot crumble and slide in and during summer it’s a never ending job strimming the grass just to keep it from seeding and in winter it turns into a quagmire that gets trampled indoors by eager dog paws before they can be halted.

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Not to mention the fact that the temporary front door “step” into the house has been an old wooden pallet propped up on spare blocks for far too long. When it’s wet, it’s slippy. Last winter I slipped over on it myself whilst helping my elderly dog get outside and broke my big toe. It still clicks madly as a reminder that next time it might be somebody else that gets hurt and it might not just be a toe!

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Apart from being messy and unsatisfactory, it’s also not good for a house largely constructed of timber and organic materials to have earth and grass so close to it. The logistics of clearing out what has fallen in and building the retaining wall that never quite got done constituted a fairly large headache. But a headache we can’t really afford to ignore. Because access becomes impossible for more than half the year, we had to do it now or leave it for almost another year – the summer is far too busy with other jobs to contemplate it. It was now or never.

A mini-digger and mini-dumper were booked for yesterday and today along with the ever-marvellous Phil who can do anything it seems. It is no exaggeration to say that I would not trust a single person other than him to manoeuvre heavy machinery in such an awkward spot fraught with the potential for utter disaster. Having said that, even I had misgivings when I saw the size of the “mini” digger and Phil patiently pointed out that a really baby digger wouldn’t have the reach to scoop out the bottom of the pathway so we needed a larger one to do what was required.

It’s fair to say that I’ve spent an awful lot of the past two days flinching and literally holding my breath as he inched the monster-muncher meticulously around the house that took so much blood, tears, toil and sweat to construct. I trust his judgement and skills implicitly but even so, I was heartily relieved when the machinery could be sent back to the hire company.

This does mean that everything from this point on has to be done entirely by sweat and muscle though … and we’ve done a fair bit of this already today. I’ve spent most of the time with pickaxe and spade, reminding myself of upper body muscles I rarely use whilst digging out the footings for a retaining wall. The digger could only reach certain parts and so manpower – and woman-power, however feeble – was called for!!

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The pictures at the beginning of the job were taken yesterday morning just as we were about to start. By close of finish today we’d reduced it to a dusty soilscape ready to receive hard “lamb-skating” as Phil calls it. The image in my head of happy little woolly animals careening about in a carefree manner bleating joyfully puts a smile on my face that sees me through the sweat and grit.

I think I’m going to need to visualise a lot more lamb-skating in the coming weeks as we deal with this lot!

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It needs doing and it will be worth it in the end. I suspect I will be staring glumly at liquid mud if the rain comes soon though … so I hope it stays dry for me and my skating lambs until Christmas this year!

 

Nuts about Autumn

We’re back into my favourite season again! September has been changeable and October certainly didn’t start promisingly yesterday but today is glorious and crisp, chilly and sunny. All the hope and beauty of Autumn, crystallised in one dewy, smokey, morning that begs to be wrapped in a hug of woollen knits and natural fabrics whilst cherishing a cup of cocoa…

I’m not really done with summer or our short Welsh growing season yet though. I’m doing too many things to concentrate on the veg plot properly and as ever, I realised too late how much I was going to miss fresh tasty veg from the garden to make the best of it. I did squeeze a few things in the areas I managed to weed in time but this year I decided to really try properly to extend our growing season in the polytunnel instead of growing summer mediterranean veg in there only. I’ll come back to that in another blog post to show you what I’ve managed so far and what I’m planning.

Outside our temperate climate is heavily into autumnal orchard fruits just now. Some have been picked, I missed to gather the damsons altogether so no damson gin this year (but mum put a few in the freezer). And although the blackberries have been amazing, we have a cupboard bursting with jams and jellies so any bramble jelly would probably not get eaten for a few years! I’ll make a blackberry and apple crumble later today but otherwise I’m happy for the wild birds to stock up rather than gather and freeze fruit we probably won’t use.

One fruit I most definitely want to rescue before the wildlife get it though is a rather special first appearance of walnuts.

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The house my brothers and I grew up in had a neighbouring garden with a prolific walnut tree in it. The squirrels would strip it each year and bury the nuts in our garden. I spent many hours watching them as a child, chewing the green husks, digging furtively whilst keeping a lookout and patting the ground back over. Invariably a lot of these walnuts would get forgotten by the absent-minded furry thieves and we often had seedling walnut trees popping up which my father would lovingly dig up and pot on. He’d give the small tree-lets to friends and when we moved here he brought the last baby trees he’d grown on with us and planted three that grew big enough in the hedgerows on our new farm.

They all survived for some years. Two are definitely still growing although one got plonked down in an unfortunate place in its container and became pot bound and is still rather tiny due to the restricted root system now too deeply entrenched to dig up easily. One over the far side of the farm I haven’t checked on for a while, it may have got lost and trimmed off in the hedges as it’s alongside the road. Those hedges get cut by machinery each year so we can’t always control how much gets cut back!

But the third down our drive has grown and grown and now overshadows our polytunnel. I can’t bear to cut it back though, I’d rather get a new polytunnel. Walnuts take some 20 years to fruit although you can buy grafted varieties which fruit sooner. Daddy’s Walnut has never fruited but to me it’s a special tree, it reminds me of him and his love of nurturing living things and is a link not just to him but to my childhood home. We discovered this week however for the first time ever it has just a smattering of nuts, it felt like a kind of birthday gift.

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I don’t know if the squirrels will steal these before they ripen. But in a way it doesn’t really matter – I’m just happy Walnut is settled enough after 19 and a half years to have nut-children of her own. It would have pleased Daddy immensely to know it had finally fruited more than 20 years after he carefully scooped it out of our garden flower borders to give it a chance at a future elsewhere. I wish I could tell him…

The orchard we planted a decade ago has definitely come into its own.   Despite our harsh climate, the constant battle against weeds and occasional butchering by my escaped sheep, the apples have marched on like the stout troopers they are. The pears and plums lag behind and the cherries are really too delicate for this high up. But apple-picking and juicing is only just around the corner now and the orchard looks so pretty with all the different varieties … in a wildish overgrown kind of way.

The quinces have cropped extraordinarily well – Vranja normally only puts out a couple of fruit – if that. This year she is covered. Not really sure what to do with all of them as they are too hard to juice and will need to be processed some other way involving cooking … that’s an awful lot of quince jelly and cheese!

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Almost no pears but the Duchess has done her best. They aren’t very pretty but once ripe the peeled pears are tasty and I’ll be making pear mincemeat with them most probably.

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Brambles aside, there are still a few autumnal soft fruits. My favourites; raspberries and alpine strawberries are welcome at breakfast or with some yoghurt for dessert.

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Not everything growing in the orchard is a fruit or nut. You may remember the goslings we hatched earlier this year? They grew into large white geese in the space of weeks and are full-size lawnmowers that have done a great job of keeping the grass down without the aid of fossil fuels. It’s said that geese eat as much grass as a cow. I thought that was a granny’s tale but now I’m starting to believe it! Adult geese just nibble but hungry growing goslings can rival teenage lads for the amount of food they can pack away!!

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My mother’s hives have done really well this year too. We had more than enough honey and because we don’t farm them to sell honey my mum decided to leave the last crop of honey on the hives for the bees to keep over-winter instead of feeding them artificially despite the supers being rammed full of capped honey. Unfortunately this kindness may have backfired as the heavy honey crops have attracted raiders … one hive is able to hold its own but the other had lost its queen and had a virgin queen later in the season. This one has been heavily raided by wasps and the bees have had their hands ? feet ? full trying to defend the hive. You can see one just coming in to land here behind the darker coloured bees.

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The bees will valiantly drag out any intruders, trying to pull off legs and wings, dropping the heavy wasps over the edge of the flight board. I watched one last week fly staggeringly some 5 metres dragged down by the wasp in its grasp and then it carefully dropped the stripy burden into a spider’s web stretched between two grass stalks before flying back to the hive. I was amazed at such a deliberate action and may have let out a cheer for the clever bee. We try to help them (and next year we’ll be taking the honey off!) by shutting down the entrance and putting out wasp traps.

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But only time will tell if this colony has been weakened too badly too survive the winter. It’s tricky because wasps too have their place. I’d just rather they didn’t kill our our bees!

There’s always something to be done when you’re surrounded by growing things! So far we’ve got most of our wood under cover and there’s hay and straw in the barn. But the apple-juicing is the next major task and I’ve still more wood to cut up and stack before the winter closes in. Onwards to next week with gratitude for the kind weather we’re having. Long may it last…