Fiber Processing Surprises and Lessons Learned

By Kathleen Davidson

To a shepherd, homegrown fiber is priceless so sending it off to be processed can be stressful, to say the least. All the effort in growing and harvesting our wool should be reflected in the perfect processed product. But sometimes the returned product doesn’t meet our expectations.

What went wrong? Hopefully I give give some helpful hints to prevent surprise or catastrophe with your fiber. Lessons I learned by mistakes in my 25 years of fiber processing.

LESSON 1: Be very specific about what you want and label all the bags of wool in the box. One time I sent 5 batches of dyed wool for roving expecting 5 batches of roving to be returned. To my surprise, all 5 batches had been carded into one big technicolor cloud. I thought I had labeled everything clearly enough but I guess there was ambiguity somewhere.

LESSON 2: Even thought it costs more,separate boxes could be a good idea. Years ago I stuffed my precious Targhee fleeces that I had accumulated for 3 years in a box with Romney fleeces. Yup, they were carded together even though my directions clearly said, make Targhee roving and Romney roving.

Don’t assume the processor knows breed characteristics in fiber. Label, label, label.

LESSON 3: To wash or not to wash before shipping. You will save both shipping and processing money sending washed fiber if you can get it done at home but don’t be surprised if your fiber is rewashed at the mill because it was “sticky”. Mills value their expensive equipment and sticky fleeces can do damage.

Test your washed fiber by letting it sit in the sun for a day. If it feels sticky it will need to be washed again. Rewashing at the mill is sometimes a surprise expense but not a bad thing for the final product.

LESSON 4: Pick through your fleeces, removing as much vegetation as possible. A lot of vegetation falls out in picking and carding but if there is too much it will show up in your yarn. Check fleeces for weak tips and breaks.

It hurts to toss a fleece from your favorite ewe but sometimes you have to bite the bullet and chalk this year’s fleece up as a loss if it has weakness that will ruin a yarn run.

LESSON 5: Check the mill’s minimum weight requirements. These vary. Make sure you send enough fiber to meet the requirements. Calculate for loss in washing and carding. I usually send 32 pounds of greasy wool to make 15 pounds of yarn.

Some mills will call you if you need to send more fiber but others will just charge the minimum rate and surprise you with fewer skeins and a bigger bill. There are mills with no minimum weights for processing if you only want a few fleeces turned into yarn.

LESSON 6: Talk to the folks at the mill and tell them how you want your yarn to finish. Discuss weight, yards per skein, ply and whether you want it in cones or skeins. Don’t be surprised if you get a different weight than you had hoped for. Be flexible.

One mill I use lets the wool “tell her how it wants to be spun”. Another mill surprised me with the most gorgeous bouncy BFL yarn I have ever felt. The people that run the mills know the process much better than I do so I give them creative power with my fiber. I have never been disappointed.

The best thing to do is look at the yarn of other breeders. Buy a skein or two and knit with it. When you find the yarn that works for you ask who their processor is. Some breeders sell soft lofty skein while others have a more crisp yarn for definition of cables and Aran patterns.

It’s all what you like and want your yarn to be. I use 3 different mills and although they spin different yarns for me, I would recommend all of them. Ask me about my yarn anytime!

BFL Yarn Loves Lace… try Old Shale!

Although I consider myself a “baby beginner knitter,” I love lace! I’m really fascinated by it; by knowing how to execute a few different kinds of stitches, you can create something so beautiful.

It’s not too bad, really… a few yarn overs, knit 2 or 3 togethers, slip slip knit, pass slipped stitch over, etc. If you can do these, you can knit some lace!

Bluefaced Leicester fiber spins up so wonderfully, and it has such great qualities as a yarn. It can spin very fine for lace knitting, if you want… or it can spin up so soft and airy in a sport weight, DK weight, or chunky weight. The yarns have great drape and feel.

No one says you must only knit lace with really tiny diameter “lace weight yarn”…. GO for the chunky stuff too! The effects are awesome! Lace weight yarns give you the gossamer, cobwebby beauty of traditional lace… but heavier weight yarns give lace a hip, modern look… really textural and interesting in its own way.

The easiest lace to start with is the very old traditional Shetland pattern, Old Shale. I have just discovered that Old Shale is technically NOT the same pattern as Feather & Fan, although for years I thought it was one in the same, with the names being used interchangeably. Old Shale is from “shael,” meaning “shell” in the Shetland dialect. It is also called Old Shell.

Visit this link for an excellent explanation of Old Shale, from Elizabeth Lovick on her website Northern Lace by Elizabeth Lovick, Fiber Life in Orkney (entry called Feather and Fan versus Old Shale, posted March 12, 2010.). She also explains about knitting the Old Shale pattern back and forth, in the round, or as an edging.

Winter is creeping up now in the Northern Hemisphere, and everywhere scarves, shawls, and wraps are popular… even in the warmer climates! Here in Texas, I’m seeing lots of cool-looking scarves coming out for winter. If you like to knit, spin up some BFL fiber or buy some BFL yarn and give lace a try! Try Old Shale if you never tried lace before.

Visit our Classifieds section to find BFL yarns and fiber for purchase.

The basic classic Old Shale (or Old Shell) pattern:

Work over a multiple of 18 sts + 2. This lace pattern has a 4 row repeat.

Row 1 (right side):  Knit across
Row 2: Stocking (or Stockinette) stitch across  (i.e., Purl across if you are working flat, or Knit across if working in the round)
Row 3: K1, *[K2 tog] 3 times, [yo, k1] 6 times, [k2 tog] 3 times, rep from * to last st, K1
Row 4: Reverse stocking stitch across  (i.e., Knit across if you are working flat, or Purl across if working in the round)

Old Shale is a scrunchy, soft pattern, with just the right amount of holes and texture for visual interest. It’s great for scarves, shawls, wraps, throws and afghans, baby blankets, and trims.

It’s great for beginners because once you get the easy 4 row repeat down, you can knit this pattern and still hold a conversation with your friends at the same time!

Lace Knitting Tip: Knitting lace in the more intricate patterns requires some concentration and no interruptions… and best practice is to insert a “life line” (a different color yarn run through every stitch on a row, like a stitch holder) through a completed perfect row.

Do it every so many rows in case you mess up some stitches. That way, if you do make a mistake, you can rip out your row(s) back down to your “life line” row, where you last left your “perfect” row of stitches.