So a few weeks ago my friend Michael asked if I could maybe possibly if I had a free minute make him a sweater? I’m not sure who suggested it, but we decided to go with handspun wool for it. (And yes, I did disclaim that it would probably take me at least two years. I don’t even think that’s an exaggeration. I have free time now, since school is out for the year, but I still have like three quarters left and that’s most of 2011 gone, and there’s no way I’m going to be a single-project girl all year long, so once school starts back up, progress will slow to a crawl.)

I threatened to give Michael my Ravelry login and make him go through the patterns search there to find something, a dire threat indeed for someone who just wanted “a simple pullover,” but fortunately he found something he liked at Knitty first — Mr Darcy. It met with my approval as well (not boring endless stockinette, no colorwork, no zippers!), so that’s the plan.

We were having this chat when SOAR 2010 was on, and I was smitten by a gorgeous chocolatey-grey Polwarth fleece I saw at Rovings’ booth, and I was really bummed when, the morning after the evening where the sweater plan was hatched, I returned to their booth and it had been snatched up by another lucky spinner. It was probably just as well that that one yummy Polwarth fleece was gone, as I recall it only being like 3.5 lbs., and the sweater calls for many, many yards of chunky weight yarn. The sizing calls for from 18 to 26 balls of Elann Peruvian Highland Chunky, which at 76yd/50g ball means anywhere from 1400-2000 yards.

So here’s the math I did. 1300g = 1.3 kg = about 2.9 lbs of wool for the yarn. Accounting for lanolin weight takes about a third of the weight off a fleece, so that means about 4.5 lbs. of raw wool. Assuming I make no mistakes with spinning and get the exact yarn I want right off the bat, that is. So add wiggle room, probably 6 lbs. of raw wool.

In Arizona, while I was there for spring training in March, 2010, I dragged my baseball buddy out to a yarn shop — like you do — and they happened to have fleeces and fiber there. I picked up a tiny bit of raw Romney fleece there, about 2 lbs. Really gorgeous stuff. And once I got it home, I tried washing it in the washing machine. It’s a good thing I was paranoid and hovering, because it turns out my washer is one of the kind that sprays cold water just before it starts the spin — so I heard that sound and rescued my wool before it could be felted and ruined. But I now know I can’t use my washer to scour fleeces, which is a bummer. So I know that whatever raw wool I buy and bring into the house has to be scoured the hard way, in the sink or bathtub. That’s not too bad a way to do, say, 4 oz. of alpaca, but 4 oz is a very long way from 6 lbs. My knees cry out for mercy just thinking about that much kneeling by the bathtub.

So I googled, and searched, and pondered, and ogled fleece porn people posted to Ravelry, and pondered some more. I really wanted to go with raw fleece, but I just couldn’t really justify the extra work. In the end, I chose New Hampshire scoured Romney wool from RH Lindsay Wool Co, in Massachusetts. I had really, really, really wanted to use Illinois-grown wool, but it’s not shearing season, and the breeds of wool I could find available in Illinois didn’t float my boat. I chose Romney because it’s reasonably soft (if not Polwarth), although the pullover will pretty much always be worn over another shirt so it doesn’t need to be next-to-skin soft, it should wear well and be durable, it has a lovely crimp and so it should be easy as pie to spin in whichever manner I choose, and (although this didn’t matter once I decided to go with scoured fleece rather than raw) the yield is relatively high, closer to 75% or so than to 60% like Merino.

I decided to get 5 lbs. of the fiber, so I’d have plenty of wiggle room for waste and also for experimenting — I wanted to try spinning different ways to see which one gave me the yarn I liked best for the sweater pattern: a woolen spun 3 ply, a woolen navajo-plied 3 ply, and maybe a worsted or semi-worsted if I could get the prep right. I like the woolen because I love long draw spinning, and also because it’ll be warmer, but I worry about the wear and tear so a worsted might be more appropriate. Anyways, I figured I’d spin a couple of yarns and then knit them into swatches and see how I liked them. I’m not normally so process-oriented with my spinning or knitting, I’m normally a “throw it at the wheel and see what you wind up with” kind of girl, but since this is for a good friend I wanted it to turn out really well. And that means practice and spinning with intent! How weird!

(All that said about the raw fleece processing, above? Well, I did still want to play with some raw fleece. So I picked up 3 lbs. of raw moorit colored Romney at the same time, just to play with. Maybe I’ll wash it as locks and then flick it and spin it as is, who knows. It’s lovely stuff but it can stay in its plastic bag for now, awaiting free time.)

I ordered last weekend, and then chewed my fingernails anxiously waiting for MY GIANT BOX OF WOOL!!! to arrive. And on Thursday, it did!

Bags of wool

Fun fact: they disclaim, on the site, that according to standard industry practice, they don’t send you the exact amount you order; they send you an amount that is close to what you order. So I figured it was good that I had ordered 5 lbs (and 3 lbs), as that has enough wiggle room in it that it would still have wiggle room even if it was a bit less than 5 lbs. Turns out, they sent me about 5.5 lbs. of the scoured Romney, and about 3.1 lbs. of the raw Romney! Score! I have sooooooo much wool to play with it’s not even funny! I can basically screw up half the wool and still have enough to make the sweater! This is brilliant!

I’ve been playing with the wool since then. On Friday I got a big mixing bowl with about 4 oz of the Romney in it, and sat down in front of my trusty TiVo to watch Fringe and the first half of Collision, which was about 2.5 hours of solid TV time. I put a denim rag over a pillow and proceeded to flick the wool with Tiger’s old cat brush — I don’t have a real flick card, but it’s basically the same. It worked, though slowly, as the scoured wool was pretty firmly clumped and not always in locks, either. By the time I set it aside for the night, my hands hurt a little, but I had a large bag of flicked wool ready to be put through the drum carder. Unfortunately, that big bag was only about half the amount I’d started with — I’d only got through about 2.5 oz of the wool in all that time. Yikes. That was about the time I started obsessing on Twitter about how I need to find someone with a wool picker to loosen this stuff up for me, because otherwise, my two-year estimate is about to become five years.

Now, flicking and picking do sort of the same thing. They take clumpy, blobbed-up wool, after it’s been washed, and turn it into fluff. You need the fluff because you can’t spin the blobs, because the spinning wheel twists the wool faster than you can pull it thin. Here’s a video of someone using a bench-style picker — you see she puts blobs in on one end, runs the little doohickey over them a couple times, and fluff piles out the other end. The fluff is ready to be spun, or could be processed further (e.g., by putting it through a drum carder). Flicking does the same thing, the teeth on the brush open up all the little individual fibers from the clump, but it’s much slower because you can basically only work on one lock of wool — which is the same as a lock of hair, just a tiny little bunch that’s held together — at a time.

The trouble here is that pickers are expensive. The cheapest bench-style one I’ve found is the Lil Dynamo, which runs about $180 shipped. Fancy Kitty also have one, which is closer to $375. And there are the cradle-style ones, which are out of the question for me because of the size, price, and, honestly, the freakish danger factor – yes, please, let’s get a big swinging thing covered with hundreds of sharpened steel points into the house! So, yeah. Expensive, huge single-purpose gadget that I’m not sure how much use I’ll get out of it beyond this one project — because how many fleeces am I realistically going to be buying and spinning? See above, re: free time! Not a good investment for me right now.

So I started asking around to see if I could locate a picker to rent, or to go to a shop to use. The Windy City Handspinning Guild designated answerer of emails knows someone with a picker that she rents, but unfortunately it’s on an open-ended loan at the moment. And I kind of came up blank other than that. The Ohio Valley Natural Fibers mill does offer a picking-only service, for about $3.50/lb, but I’d have to ship the wool there and have it shipped back, so I could have the picking done for under $20 with another $20-25 for shipping. Not too bad, except that that’s about what I paid for the wool. The Illinois Wool & Fiber Mill, which is closer (out by Rockford), doesn’t list a picking-only service, but I emailed them and they said that they can do that. It’s only about a 90 minute drive out there, so I emailed to ask if I could do a day trip to have the wool picked, rather than shipping it in. (Plus, if I head out that way, it’s a convenient excuse to stop by The Fold on the way back – heh.)

But, while the picker issue simmers on the back burner, I did take yesterday to turn my fluff into roving. It’s still time consuming, but not too bad, and I like playing with the carder. I have a Strauch Petite, which I bought a few years ago when I decided that my KitchenAid piggy bank, into which I’d been putting aside money for a year or so, would be better raided for a drum carder since I suspected I’d get more use out of that than the stand mixer. It’s an entry-level manual drum carder, but it’s served me well and turns out very nice batts.

Here’s what I started out with — on the left, clumpy blobs of scoured wool, turned into fluff, which I carded and turned into roving:

A progression of wool

The carding went like this. I started out by putting fluff through the carder one time:

Fiber on the intake tray

which got turned into a batt (with a cat supervising, because he saw the camera and knew his presence was required):

Cat with a batt

which I tore into strips:

6 lengthwise strips of batting

and then drafted them out to be 4-5 feet long and spread them very thinly across the intake tray of the carder, so that the colors would blend further:

Wool on the carder intake tray

And once that second batt was carded, I left it on the drum, loosened one edge, and slowly pulled it in a spiral off the drum in order to get a long strip of roving, which I balled up, ready to be spun:

Great Balls of Roving!

Once I got back from my haircut, yesterday, I sat down at the wheel and spun up a little less than one ball of roving into a woolen singles. I think it needs a bit more twist; it fluffs up nicely when plied back on itself, and is very soft and sqwooshy, and I think will turn out to be a chunky weight yarn no problem as a 3 ply, but it’s so soft and sqwooshy that I think it would pill like mad and probably not wear too hard. But I like the color, and all things considered, I think I done pretty good, for a first pass attempt:

Singles on the bobbin

So, it remains to be seen what will come of the picking issue, but so far, so good!