Determinedly green hills, tumbling stone walls, beaten exposed rock and indispensible pubs – a short break in the Peak District was just what I needed last month. The heather was beginning to put out buds, the sun managed to fight through the clouds sporadically, and the sheep were mostly yet to be sheared.
When I was little I always hated seeing wool lying on the ground in fields and caught on barbed wire. It seemed like a waste. I always wanted to collect it, hoarder that I am. Parents, relations, whoever was forcing me out on a walk, never let me. What would I do with it? I couldn’t use it for anything, and it was smelly and dirty.
Oh, how different things are now. The wool is still smelly and dirty, still caught in the thistles like forgotten little drifts of snow. But now I know how to clean it, to card and spin it, to make it into something useful. And there’s nothing to stop me gathering as much as I like! (Except for the limited size of the designated wool pocket in the backpack…)
So our hiking trip was punctuated by meandering runs towards little white patches that looked promising. A lot of the wool had far too much kemp (brittle, weak hairs that do not take dye) for it to be useable. Some (as in the photo below) was far too coarse and hair-like. But some of the wool I found was beautiful. Some snowy white, long and lustrous, some distinctive Bluefaced Leicester finely crimped locks. I kept these, as well as some slightly shorter wool with kemp in it for some texture. Though the kemp adds no strength to yarn, in small amounts it can add a tweedy effect.
Carefully stashed in my bag and brought home, the wool first needed cleaning before it could be made into yarn. I picked out as much grass, moss and leaf as possible, and, as there was only a small amount, washed it in a single batch in the sink. First I used hot water with Unicorn Power Scour, which came recommended by everyone I know who had used it, then rinsed with hot water. When working with whole fleeces it's often necessary to wash and rinse another time, but I had selected cleaner wool when gathering, and the small quantity helped.
Turning the handle on the side of the carder feeds the wool under the smaller front drum. It is then pulled up between the two drums, where the teeth separate the fibres. Any waste, including vegetable matter (small pieces of straw, leaves etc.), too-short and clumped sections of wool mostly ends up on the front drum, while on the back drum the useful fibre gradually builds into a batt.
When the large drum is full, the batt is peeled upwards off the teeth, forming a large rectangle of wool. At this stage batts are useable, and can be spun into yarn or felted. However, I mixed different types of wool, and some fibres have not fully separated and blended, so I tear the two batts I made into smaller pieces and feed them through the carder again. I do this twice to ensure the batts have a relatively uniform texture and composition.
The plied yarn is then wound onto a niddy-noddy (by far my favourite word) to make a skein. In this form the yarn can be washed and, if desired, dyed. I like to beat up my hand-spun a little when washing it. The hot water and friction set the twist and make the fibres stick together slightly, which helps prevent the yarn from splitting or unravelling.