Sheep-to-Shawl Process for Creating Lofty Yarn Using Racka Wool

Jacqueline Harp
American Racka sheep photo provided by Nancy Richardson
All other photos by Jacqueline Harp

The spring 2021 issue of PLY featured a magnificent collection of articles on the topic of dual-coated sheep breeds. This issue contained an in-depth fleece study of American Racka sheep. The devotion and labor involved in caring for this special heritage breed demands extraordinary recognition. What better way to honor the dedication of the shepherdess who provided the fleece for the article than to gift her with a hand-knitted, 100 percent Racka wool shawl, handspun from the fleece of her flock! Join me in this unique fiber arts experience as we tackle the challenge of spinning a lofty yarn from the dual-coated fleece of the Racka.

Loft

When used to describe yarn, loft means light, airy, and having a soft handle. Generally, one would not pair loft with dual-coated because the latter often implies that the fiber is coarse, but that is exactly what can be accomplished with the right techniques from raw fleece to shawl. To demonstrate this almost alchemical process in the most dramatic way, I took the heavy, dual-coated fleece of the rare American Racka, and brought loft – lightness, soft handle, and rustic uniformity – to the yarn.

Raw fleece

When I first unrolled a whole Racka fleece on a table in my studio, I was greeted by an expanse of long, stunning silver-gray locks. The locks of an American Racka fleece contain four fiber types: an inner coat, an outer coat, guard hairs, and kemp. A Racka fleece can weigh around 6.5 pounds, with a micron count of 12–40 microns and staple lengths between 8–12 inches.

I skirted the fleece, taking care to remove vegetable matter and any felted locks along the perimeter. Once I finished skirting, I washed a few handfuls of the fleece in hot soapy water. The on-body felting I noticed while skirting indicated that Racka wool may be prone to felting, so I was extra careful not to agitate the fleece or change the temperature during scouring. Once the Racka wool was properly scoured, I laid it out to dry on a table.

Going woolen

The main challenge of this Racka fleece-to-shawl spin project was creating a lofty yarn. The woolen method of handspinning is a great way to achieve lofty, bouncy, and soft yarns. Thus, I chose the woolen method from preparation to spinning.

I took small handfuls of washed Racka locks and laid them in a single layer on my 90 TPI drum carder. I ran the locks through the carder twice to get them thoroughly mixed. The locks blended easily on the drum. It is important to note that although Racka locks hold four different fiber types, the carder did a wonderful job blending those fibers together to make well-blended, airy batts.

I pre-drafted the batts into long strips. This additional step helped make the fibers easier to spin, while still preserving the loftiness of the preparation.

Spinning with drop spindles

The strips of Racka batting felt coarse to the touch, communicating the need for low twist to soften the handle. The coarseness also meant the yarn would be softer and lighter as a single; plying would have added more twist and weight to the yarn, accentuating coarseness. The strength of the Racka fiber allows for a low-twist single that has structural integrity and a softer handle. Thus, I spun all the pre-drafted Racka batts with top whorl drop spindles, using the long draw spinning method. The resulting yarn was a fingering weight single with a WPI of 14.

Finishing

I finished the singles in a bath of hot water, still being careful not to cause felting by overhandling. I squeezed out excess water and gave the yarns the “whack” treatment against the edge of the sink. This gives more loft to the singles by setting the twist and encouraging the fibers to bloom.

The pattern

The fun part was deciding on a shawl pattern for my handspun Racka singles. I ended-up choosing the Boneyard Shawl, a free pattern offered by Stephen West (Westknits). It is an enchanting design that can make use of a variety of yarn weights.

I actually had the good fortune to meet Stephen in person back in 2019, when I happened to be in town to visit my LYS, the Fibre Space, located in Alexandria, VA. Stephen was teaching once of his in-person classes at the time, and I waited over an hour just to take a picture with him, and he was kind enough to oblige.

Knitting

The Racka singles knit effortlessly upon my needles. I finished and blocked the shawl after a soapy bath. After it dried, it was beautiful and fairy-like.

Although it was not next-to-the-skin soft, the yarn was noticeably softer after knitting and was not unpleasant to wear. It also felt warm, light, and springy when worn across my shoulders.

Sendoff

I carefully packaged the shawl and sent it to Nancy Richardson, the American Racka shepherdess. Nancy is a champion for her sheep breed and takes great care of her sheep. She was delighted to receive the shawl and was frankly shocked to see that I was able to create such a wearable and beautiful product from the Racka fleece. She remarked how gorgeous it was to see the natural colors of silver and gray move in a gentle fade throughout the fabric.

Parting thoughts

It has been a pleasure to show you how versatile Racka wool is and what happens when it is prepared and spun using the woolen method. It shows that achieving loft is possible when spinning rare, unusual wools from the dual-coated breeds. As you contemplate your next lofty spin project, don’t be afraid to try your own sheep-to-shawl project and rise above the presumption of coarseness.

Jacqueline Harp is a freelance writer and multimedia fiber artist who spins, felts, weaves, crochets, and knits in every spare moment possible. She is also a certified Master Sorter of Wool Fibers through the State Univ. of N.Y. (Cobleskill) Sorter-Grader-Classer (SGC) Program. Her Instagram handle is @foreverfiberarts.

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Eszee Twist tool

Post written by Mary Egbert

When I first started spinning some 11 years ago, I gave no thought to measurements, twist, etc. I sort of just went for it. Little did I know I was missing key spinning fundamentals that would help my yarn not fall apart.

After taking a woolen to worsted class with the famous Jacey Boggs Faulkner, I realized I needed to step up my game if I was going to spin yarn worthy of a project. 

I studied twist, angles, and what measurements I needed to keep track of during the journey of spinning a bobbin of yarn that took my yarn from meh to looking like a professional, seasoned spinner.

I thought other spinners could use a tool with all the necessary measurements in one place, so the Eszee Twist Tool was born.

The Eszee Twist Tool measures yarn thickness and angle of ply twist and has guides for S and Z direction and wraps per inch. It even comes with a Yarn Planner booklet that shows you how to use the Eszee Twist Tool. The booklet also goes into depth about whorls and twist and takes you through the steps to spin yarn, such as chain ply, corespun, cables, and more. It also shows you how to calculate for a 2-ply and 3-ply yarn.

If you are struggling to spin a consistent yarn, the Eszee Twist Tool and Yarn Planner may be helpful to you and your spinning journey. You can find it at Camaj Fiber Arts.


Do you know about something new or hot or rare — fiber, tools, events? We’d love to feature it on our blog or newsletter. If you’re making/planning something new you think people should know about, let us know!


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October Vlog with Jacey and Jillian

Jillian starts by sharing the businesses who contributed tools and fiber to the Consistency issue (listed on Independent Spinner page and below) and then explores her favorite parts of this issue. Jacey shared several videos illustrating some of the techniques used in the issue. Jillian explains and shows her favorite spinning tools from HipStrings—WPI tools and twist angle gauges. Jacey asserts the importance of measuring yarn (such as twist angle) before it is finished so it is easier to re-create that yarn. Jacey gives a preview of the upcoming Winter issue—Head and Hands—and discusses plans for PLYAway 2022. Finally, Jillian and Jacey encourage everyone to submit ideas for writing for PLY, especially for experiment-type articles where you don’t have to know any answers beforehand and just take the readers through your experiment and conclusions. 

Specific information about PLYAway!  

PLY Away 2022 
April 19th-23rd, 2022 
Plyaway.com 

It’s happening, it’s really happening! After much stressing and debating, PA22 is on! For everyone’s safety, health, and feeling of security, we will be requiring all teachers, attendees, and vendors to be fully vaccinated. If there are changes in the Covid-19 situation, we will adapt and change as well. 

Because of all of this, there has been some juggling and shuffling. On October 18th, the full list of teachers was posted on the website. All the fiber-rific classes were revealed on October 20th. Registration will open Oct. 30th at 11am Central for everyone who was registered for PA20 (you’ll get an email and registration code) and on Oct. 31st at 11am Central, registration will be open to all. 

If you were set to vend at PA20, we’ll be reaching out about PA22. 

Finally, we’re always looking for fibery goodies for the PA goodie bags (we are thrilled to exchange bazaar ads for goodie bag items). Silent auction items and door prizes are also welcome! Everyone gets mentioned in the PA program too! Get in touch with Jess.cook@plymagazine.com for more details. 

Links mentioned in this quarter’s video:

Camaj Fiber Arts 

Akerworks  

Nancy’s Knit Knacks  

Cynthia Wood Spinner 

HipStrings  

Mielke’s Fiber Arts 

Brookmoore Creations  

Middle Brook Fiberworks 

Essential Fiber 

Jenkins Yarn Tools 

Wheels 

Daedalus Sparrow and Magpie 

HansenCrafts miniSpinner 

Majacraft Rose 

Louet S10 and S10C 

Ashford Wee Peggy 

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PLY Magazine believes that Black lives matter, as well as LBGTQI+ lives. Those most vulnerable and persecuted in our communities deserve our love and support. Please be good to each other.

Did you know we also have a monthly PLY newsletter? Sign up here!

Book Review: Pastoral Song: A Farmer’s Journey

book by James Rebanks

reviewed by Jillian Moreno

I’ve read this book twice, first when it was released in England last year, and just recently I listened to the audiobook. My first read told me it was important information, but I let myself be carried along, entranced by the storytelling.

The deeper information about farming and how farming has changed hooked me, subtly but deeply. I started reading more about farming and sustainability as articles came across my various feeds.

When I listened to the book for my second read, the importance of sustainably growing food and raising animals is all I heard.

James Rebanks is an excellent writer; he can put you squarely in a moment or a place. He currently farms and raises sheep and cows with his family. This land in the Lake District in the north of England has been in his family for 600 years, and he gives it the respect it deserves.

The book is divided into three sections.

Nostalgia presents the type of farming he remembers from his youth, how his grandparents farmed. It is rotational farming, working with and preserving the land.

Progress is the farming he saw in his teens and twenties, his father’s farm. The farming focused on increased production at the cost of everything else; the health of the land, the animals, the farmers, and the consumers can be damned as long as inexpensive food is on the shelves. This is the era of giant tractors, pesticides, growth hormones, and single crop farms. Much of the world still farms this way.

Utopia closes the book. This is the farming Rebanks and his family currently practice. It’s mostly back to the ways of his grandfather, with modern “progress” only where it makes sense to the bigger environmental picture.

He doesn’t sugarcoat how hard this type of farming is. He works with environmental agencies and receives subsidies to farm in favor of the land and animals, to restore and maintain the biodiversity of his land, but he still has to do work away from the farm to make ends meet.

This is the type of farming we should be striving toward, and this book gives me hope it can happen if we respect and focus on the well-being of the land, animals, the farmers, and our own health.

James Rebanks gives me hope for the future of farming and our environment.

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PLY Magazine believes that Black lives matter, as well as LBGTQI+ lives. Those most vulnerable and persecuted in our communities deserve our love and support. Please be good to each other.

Send Us Your Tips

We’d love to hear your tips for our Spring 2022 Goat issue.

How do you control flyaways when spinning goat?

Share your tip on the form here on the website.

The person who submits our favorite tip will get a prize from us! It’s our way of saying thanks for sharing your wisdom with the PLY readers. Trust me, it’s nice.

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PLY Magazine believes that Black lives matter, as well as LBGTQI+ lives. Those most vulnerable and persecuted in our communities deserve our love and support. Please be good to each other.

Voices in Wool

Clara Parkes–wool goddess–has a podcast called Voices in Wool. If you haven’t listened to it yet, do yourself a favor and find it on your favorite podcast listening platform.

In particular, check out the episode with Dawn Brown. Dawn raises sheep and angora goats in Texas and runs a small mill called Independence Wool . During their discussion, Dawn and Clara talk about Dawn’s new role as “manager of the commercial wool testing lab that is being added to the Bill Sims Wool & Mohair Research Laboratory at Texas A&M’s AgriLife Research and Extension Center in San Angelo, Texas.”

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PLY Magazine believes that Black lives matter, as well as LBGTQI+ lives. Those most vulnerable and persecuted in our communities deserve our love and support. Please be good to each other.

Mood: WINTER 2022 – Neck & Shoulders

Neck and Shoulders Moodboard

When the weather turns chilly, it’s time to keep our neck and shoulders warm! For spinners, that means handspun scarves, cowls, and shawls. Small projects that can be quick and easy, drapey and delicate, warm and cozy, light and flowy, intricate and luxurious. No matter which you create, they all really show off handspun yarns.

When you spin for these accessories, what do you think about: loft, drape, warmth, color? Scarves and cowls touch some of our most sensitive skin. How do you spin for softness, beyond picking a soft breed. Is there a fiber, prep, draft, structure, or finish you like best? Why?

Merino is the name that always comes up when spinners think of soft. What other breeds do you use when you want something to be luxuriously soft? Do you use blends? If so, which ones work best for what purposes? Shawls sometimes need drape, from a little sway to a full-on swing. How do you build a yarn with drape? How do you build a yarn that’s warm, how do you build one that’s soft but can keep the cold wind out? Is it about fiber or draft? Is it about cloth structure? Knit, crochet, weaving? We want to know it all!

How do you prep your fiber for these small pieces? Blending boards are a great way to play with color for small accessories. Do you have favorite ways to blend color and fibers on a blending board? Perhaps you like to handcard your fiber for these pieces. Why and what makes that special?

A little goes a long way, right?  Is this true when blending luxury fibers into wool for these smaller projects? How little? How much luxury fiber do you need to be able to notice it in your final fabric, and what do different luxury fibers do to the drape, loft, warmth of cloth?

What about texture? Accessories are great for using heavily textured yarn which can be heavy. How do you deal with this? How about the great lace debate: singles, 2-ply, 3-ply, more plies, or something else entirely? What makes the best lace fabric? What about fiber type? Are there some fibers that really shine when used for lace? Are there some that don’t? Spinning for a fine lace shawl is a perfect spindle project. Do you have a method that you think works best or any tips for getting all of that yardage spun?

Handspun and woven scarves make great gifts. How do you plan and weave multiple scarves on a single rigid heddle warp? Do you embellish your scarves, shawls, and cowls? What tips to you have for fringe, pom poms, tassels, and embroidery on knitted and woven cloth?

Cowls are a great way to use yarns that would pill in other projects. Do you know the secrets to spinning low twist, high loft, chunky Merino singles? What about math? How do you know what can be made from your one special skein of yarn?

We want to know everything about spinning these yarns, if you’ve got an idea of an article, experiment, or project.

Submit your ideas here

Proposals of articles and projects are due by Dec. 1, 2021. We’ll get back to you in January, and final pieces are due June 1, 2022.

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PLY Magazine believes that Black lives matter, as well as LBGTQI+ lives. Those most vulnerable and persecuted in our communities deserve our love and support. Please be good to each other.

Scales and Arpeggios Spinning Exercises to Help Make Your Spinning More Consistent

Michelle Boyd

If you’re faithful to your daily practicing,

You will find your progress is encouraging

Do mi so mi do mi fa la, so it goes

Practicing your scales and your arpeggios.

              -The Aristocats          

When I was a student in Olds College’s Master Spinner Program, I struggled with making consistent singles, just like everyone else who has ever taken that course. I just couldn’t get a good rhythm going and keep my drafting even. Then one day, I had a conversation with my daughter’s piano teacher that gave me an idea.

She said practice makes perfect, but practice works best when it is focussed. She had assigned my daughter a set of specific exercises that seemed simple and repetitive but were intended to teach muscle memory to make her playing easier, almost unconscious. I realized I could do the same with my spinning, and I came up with some simple exercises to focus on my drafting. Just like piano practice, I did these little drills every day for 15 or 20 minutes and before long, I found that my singles were smooth and consistent. Because I was inspired by piano practice, I called it “doing my scales.” And since I’ve always loved the song from Disney’s Aristocats, I came to think of them as my scales and arpeggios.

These exercises are designed to focus your spinning practice on one area at a time to help you build muscle memory and gain consistency in spinning your singles. You may want to try practicing one of these exercises each day for 15 minutes, or you can sit down and run through all of the exercises once a week. These exercises are intended as basic guides to the drafting styles, and with practice and observation, you may find that small adjustments in the rhythm or procedures work better for you and your body mechanics. In time, you will find that you can spin smooth singles with ease.

When you practice spinning, make sure that you are seated in a comfortable chair that supports your back and shoulders. Sit back from the orifice of your spinning wheel, leaving at least 10 cm (4 inches) between your front hand and the orifice.

Exercise 1: Short Forward Draw

This exercise is intended to improve the coordination of your draft and your treadling to help you achieve a more consistent distribution of twist for each draft. With practice, you will learn to make a smoother single and reduce the number of slubs and thin spots.

Using a top or sliver preparation and the largest whorl on your flyer, attach your fibre to a leader. As you treadle downward, draft your fibre forward from the fibre source. As your foot comes back up, draw your drafting hand back to smooth the twist into the attenuated fibre. With the next treadle, use your drafting hand to simultaneously feed your spun singles forward and draft the next length of fibre forward. As your foot comes back up, smooth the twist in. Practice keeping your back hand stationary and only moving your front hand as you draft and smooth to ensure a regular drafting length.

Your rhythm will be foot down/draft forward, foot up/smooth back.

(Note: If you are spinning on a wheel with double treadles, choose one foot as your treadling foot to coordinate the draft with and count only that foot. You can adjust your rhythm to R foot down/draft forward, L foot down/smooth back, or vice versa if you are more comfortable starting with your left foot. This applies to Exercise 2 as well.)

Exercise 2: Short Backward Draw

This exercise it the companion to the Short Forward Draw above, using the same treadling and drafting rhythm, but drafting with your back hand and smoothing with your front hand.

Using a top of sliver preparation and the largest whorl on your flyer, attach your fibre to a leader. As you treadle downward, pinch the fibre at the leader with your front hand and draft a short distance back with your back hand, allowing the fibres between your two hands to thin and straighten. As your foot comes back up, smooth the twist back with your front hand until it meets your back hand. With your next treadle, repeat the process with your back hand moving as you treadle down, front hand moving as your foot comes up. After 3 or 4 drafts backward, you will find that your back hand is a distance from the orifice of your wheel and it is time to feed forward. Pinching the fibre source at the tip of your drafting zone with your back hand, allow the take-up of your wheel to pull the single forward onto the bobbin, smoothing the single with your front hand.

Your rhythm will be foot down/draft back, foot up/smooth back (3-4 times), treadle down/feed forward/treadle up.

Exercise 3: Supported Long Draw

This exercise is designed to make you more comfortable with a long draw drafting style. This is by no means the only way to achieve a long draw but will provide a foundation for the skills that are needed for all long draw drafting styles.

Using a roving or rolag preparation and the largest whorl on your wheel, attach your fibre to the leader. With your front hand, pinch the fibre at the leader. This hand will remain stationary and pinch and open to control the twist as it enters the fibre, so ensure it is in a comfortable position that does not strain your wrist, elbow, or shoulder. Treadle a few times to build up the twist ahead of your front hand. Continue to treadle steadily as you begin to draft – if you are a haphazard treadler, you might want to use a metronome app to help you find a steady rhythm, too.

Starting with your fibre held in your back hand close to your front hand, draw the fibre source back with your back hand to thin and straighten the fibres. Open the fingers of your front hand, allowing the twist to catch and twist the attenuated fibres. When you feel the pull of the twist opposing your draft, use the finger and thumb of your back hand to clamp down near the tip of your drafting triangle and allow the twist to come up to that point. Move your back hand forward to allow the single to be pulled onto the bobbin. Pinch the twisted single with your front hand again, leaving 2–3 inches (2.5–4 cm) of twisted single behind your front hand. Draft the fibre source backward again, and repeat.

Your rhythm will be pinch front, pull back, pinch back, feed forward.

When you feel confident with this drafting method, try removing the front hand (pinch front) from the process. Without that front hand pinching to control the twist as you draft, this becomes an unsupported long draw.

Though at first it seems as though it doesn’t show,

Like a tree, ability will bloom and grow

If you’re smart you’ll learn by heart what every artist knows

You must sing your scales

And your ar-pe-eee-ggios.

~The Aristocats

(Music and lyrics by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman)

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PLY Magazine believes that Black lives matter, as well as LBGTQI+ lives. Those most vulnerable and persecuted in our communities deserve our love and support. Please be good to each other.

Virtual Shetland Wool Week 2021

Shetland Wool Week is online this year so you can enjoy the offerings from the comfort of your home. (Though I’m sure we’d all much rather be able to see the sheep and feel the fiber in person!) From their website: “For nine days from 25 September – 3 October, we’ll be bringing Shetland Wool Week to you. There will be films, talks, tours and classes – some pre-recorded and others live, as well as music and a market.”

If you purchase a SWW membership, you’ll gain access to a film series with videos such as the following: Carol Christiansen on “A Guide to Rooing,” Sue Arthur on Preparing Shetland Fleece for Handspinning, and Bunchy Casey on “A Shetland Dye Garden.”

Did you know we also have a monthly PLY newsletter? Sign up here!

PLY Magazine believes that Black lives matter, as well as LBGTQI+ lives. Those most vulnerable and persecuted in our communities deserve our love and support. Please be good to each other.