Separating a Dual-Coated Fleece Using Only Your Hands

words by Jacqueline Harp and photos by Joseph Harp
Close up of a dual-coated fleece from an Icelandic sheep

When a fiber artist chooses to separate and process a dual-coated fleece by hand, it is like unlocking two fleeces from one. A dual-coated fleece is an intertwined combination of a short-stapled, soft, downy undercoat and a protective, longer-stapled, coarser, hair-like outercoat.  Once these integrated coats are separated, you will have two very different fibers requiring different preparation and spinning techniques, which will result in two very different yarns. One yarn is going to be airy, woolen, and softer and can be worn next to the skin. The other yarn is heavier, worsted, and tougher and can be made into outerwear.

Interestingly, in industrial textile milling, the process of mechanically separating dual-coated fleeces is known as “dehairing” or “fiber separation.” A mill utilizes a dehairing machine to divide a fleece’s outercoat from the undercoat. The mill will then use the newly separated undercoat to produce soft knitting yarns while using the outercoat for yarn durable enough for rug making. Typical mills, however, only take large batches of fleece – usually hundreds of pounds. Even an artisanal mill will have a minimum order requirement. A handspinner is generally working with a single fleece, which doesn’t meet the large thresholds for mill processing. Sending a small order of fleece to be “dehaired” at a mill could be cost prohibitive.

The good news

From the comfort of your own home or studio, you can easily separate a dual-coated fleece using the most basic fiber processing tool known to humanity – your hands. Fiber tools such as combs, carders, flickers, or hackles can be used to separate a dual-coated fleece, but not all fiber artists will have these items readily available. If you don’t work with raw fleeces often, you may not want to invest in hand tools you will only use occasionally. Here is how to separate your dual-coated fleece, in four easy steps, using only your hands:

1) Take an individual lock of wool and secure the cut end of the lock between your thumb and index finger.

2) With your other hand, pinch or wrap the tip of the lock between your fingers.

3) Once your lock is in this position, hold the cut end firmly while you pull the tip away from the base of the lock until you have pulled the lock completely apart. This may happen with a single pull or you may need to repeatedly and gently tug the tip several times to separate the outercoat from undercoat.

4) Repeat steps 1–3 until you have the desired amount of separated fibers.

It is a simple process, and your technique will improve with practice. Start slowly until you get the feel for it. The instructions work for both left and right handers.

Additional tips

Locks (l-r): a whole lock, separated outercoat, separated undercoat

Let’s start with an easy tip. Make sure to set up containers for the separated locks before you start. You want to avoid undoing your efforts.

Make sure your work area is well-ventilated and easy to clean. Even washed locks can still contain vegetable matter and dust that can be inhaled and tracked around. By anticipating the need to clean up after the process, you can aim to make less of a mess in the first place.

Depending on personal preference, you can hand-separate raw locks or washed locks with equal success. Raw locks will still contain lanolin, which can be a bit smelly and greasy, but the lanolin makes the fibers more slippery and therefore easier to pull apart by hand. The fibers from the separated raw locks can be washed later using your preferred fleece scouring method. Washed locks, on the other hand, will be clean and smell nicer but can be a bit harder to separate because the slipperiness caused by the lanolin is gone.

If your locks (washed or raw) have started to felt, don’t panic! There is still a chance for the locks to be hand-separated successfully if you carefully tease the lock apart. Gently tugging and pulling the ends of the felting lock should release the fibers from each other enough to be separated.

Final thoughts

Locks and samples

Dual-coated sheep breeds can be found all over the world. Shetland, Icelandic, Karakul, Navajo-Churro, and Soay are five breeds of dual-coated sheep whose fleeces are relativity easy to acquire from North American flocks. To demonstrate the hand-separation process, I used lovely milk-chocolate locks from a dual-coated Icelandic yearling-ewe fleece sourced from North America. The technique for separating dual-coated fibers explained here can be used for other non-sheep, fiber-producing, dual-coated animals, such as qiviut, bison, yak, and cashmere goat.

A dual-coated fleece has much to offer to those looking for a project that can inspire and surprise. It is rewarding to take a raw fleece to an unusual and unexplored place. So what are you waiting for? Start towards the next destination in your fiber arts journey.

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.

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.

References from Spring 2021 issue

Two of the articles in the Spring 2021 issue (Double-coated) contained a number of helpful references.

References from “What Is Primitive? What Is Double-Coated?” by Deborah Robson

Christiansen, Carol Anne. “Primitive Wool and Early Textile Production in Shetland,” diss.,

University of Manchester, 2003.

Dýrmundsson, Ólafur R. “Four–Hornedness: A Rare Peculiarity Still Found in Icelandic Sheep.”

The Icelandic Sheep Breeders of North America Newsletter 9, no. 4 (2005): 6–8.

Dýrmundsson, Ólafur R., and R. Niznikowski. “North European Short-tailed Breeds of Sheep:

A Review.” Animal 4 (2010), 1275–82.

Elwes, Henry John. Guide to the Primitive Breeds of Sheep and Their Crosses on Exhibition at

the Royal Agricultural Society’s Show, Bristol, 1913, with Notes on the Management of Park Sheep in England and the Possible Advantages of Crossing Them with Improved Breeds. (No location cited): Rare Breeds Survival Trust, [1913] 1983.

___. “Notes on the Primitive Breeds of Sheep in Scotland.” The Scottish Naturalist 2 (1912): 25–


Falck, Diane. “Understanding Primitive Fleece.” In Timeless Coloured Sheep, edited by Dawie

du Toit, 92–96. Petersberg, Germany: Michael Imhof Verlag, 2014.

Gleba, Margarita. “From Textiles to Sheep: Investigating Wool Fibre Development in Pre-

Roman Italy Using Scanning Electron Microscopy (Sem).” Journal of Archaeological Science 39, no. 12 (2012): 3643–61.

Noddle, Barbara A., and Michael Lawson Ryder. “Primitive Sheep in the Aran Islands.” Journal

of Archaeological Science 1, no. 1 (1974): 109–12.

Ryder, Michael Lawson. “Fleece Evolution in Domestic Sheep.” Nature 204, no. 495 (1964):


___. “Follicle Arrangement in Skin from Wild Sheep, Primitive Domestic Sheep and in

Parchment.” Nature 182, no. 5638 (1958): 781–83.

___. “Seasonal Fleece Changes in Some Cheviot Sheep.” Journal of Agricultural Science,

Cambridge 83 (1974): 93–99.

___. “A Survey of European Primitive Breeds of Sheep.” Annales de génétique et de sélection

animale (Ann. Genet. Sel. anim) 13, no. 4 (1981): 381–418.

___. “Why Do Animals Moult?” New Scientist 13, no. 272 (1962): 266–69.

Wade-Martins, Peter. Black Faces: A History of East Anglian Sheep Breeds. Ashford, Kent,

England: Norfolk Museums Service in association with Geerings of Ashford, 1993.

References from “Wool, Hair, and Kemp” by Deborah Robson

Alderson, Lawrence. (accessed May 4, 2020).

American Sheep Industry Association. Sheep Production Handbook. Englewood, CO: American

Sheep Industry Association, 2015.

ASTM International. Standard Terminology Relating to Textiles, D 123-00b. West

Conshohocken, PA: ASTM International, 2000.

Christiansen, Carol Anne. “Primitive Wool and Early Textile Production in Shetland,” diss.,

University of Manchester, 2003.

Porter, Valerie, Lawrence Alderson, and Stephen J. G. Hall. Mason’s World Encyclopedia of

Livestock Breeds and Breeding, Volumes 1 & 2. Wallingford and Boston: CABI, 2016.

Ryder, Michael L. “Wool of the 14th Century BC from Tell El-Amarna, Egypt.” Nature 240, no.

5380 (1972): 355–56.

Ryder, Michael L., and Stuart Kimbell Stephenson. Wool Growth. London and New York:

Academic Press, 1968.

Scobie, D. R., A. R. Bray, and N. C. Merrick. “Medullation and Average Fibre Diameter Vary

Independently in the Wool of Romney Sheep.” New Zealand Journal of Agricultural Research 41, no. 1 (1998): 101–10.

Scobie, D. R., J. L. Woods, and D. B. Baird. “Seasonal and Between Sheep Differences in

Medullation of Wool Fibres.” Proceedings of the New Zealand Society of Animal Production 53 (1993): 319–22.

Wilson, J. F. “The Medullated Wool Fiber.” Hilgardia: A Journal of Agricultural Science (California

Agricultural Experiment Station) 4, no. 5 (1929): 135–52.

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.

Book Review: Women’s Work by Elizabeth Wayland Barber

reviewed by Sukrita Mahon

First published 27 years ago, Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth and Society in Early Times by Elizabeth Wayland Barber is still considered essential reading for contemporary textile artists. Its importance cannot be understated, considering that thread- and cloth-making have been so vital to our civilisation from the very beginning. It’s disturbing to think that since they were the domain of women from the earliest times, they have been left out of much of our histories and archaeological studies. There are a few reasons for this: textiles are much more perishable than other crafts, and until recently we did not have technology to analyse the fibres that did survive. Moreover, they were often not considered worth studying in detail, since most archaeologists were male and not particularly interested in these crafts. Archaeologists who also weave and spin are surprisingly hard to come by even today. Add to this the fact that women usually did not tell their own stories by writing them down (but men did), a lot gets left out.

As a spinner who took it up mainly for fun and stress relief, I found it really interesting to contemplate just how old the craft is. The fact that many of the chapters contain glimpses of the spinners’ and weavers’ lives make it all the more entrancing. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has wondered what the lives of earlier fibre artists might have been like, and the book certainly delivers on building that understanding. I was also struck by how common and all-encompassing a task it was to create cloth: all women participated in it, without exception, nearly constantly! Those who made it their occupation ran workshops that went through huge quantities of wool. Even those who belonged to the ruling classes – princesses and queens – spun and wove, in fact to a high standard, since they were required to make important pieces. Such work couldn’t be delegated away.

Textiles were of pivotal importance to a region’s economy and growth, even before money was invented in its current form. When we think of “treasure” today, we picture gold or jewels, but cloth was among the most prized of possessions. In many places in Asia and elsewhere, this is still true today, as regional textiles still hold a place on the international market. Many regions are famous for their unique handlooms, often passed down within families. Unfortunately, we can no longer say that they are prized as highly as they once might have been, nor that most artisans are able to make a good living from making them. While the book is focused on a small region: Europe, Egypt, and the ancient Near East, we can still imagine how some of the lifestyle aspects may have carried on into present day in areas where these crafts are still practised.

One of the criticisms of the book from other reviewers is that it’s overly academic – I didn’t really find that to be the case. The writing is engaging and the material was very interesting to me. For instance, I had no idea that Venus de Milo is depicted in a spinning stance and that this would have been clear to us if only we hadn’t erased the image of a spinning figure from our collective consciousness. The book does not include very much detail about the spinning or weaving techniques, and the little description there is, I found somewhat confusing. Other craftspeople may not think so, especially those more knowledgeable about weaving than I am.

The detail and intricacy of some of the early textiles is astounding, apparently even to the archaeologists studying them. They wonder why people would go to all that effort to make such beautiful things when, from our point of view, they were merely existing at subsistence level. The author suggests we change our mindset a bit to understand why their textiles were so lavish. In a time with few entertainments outside of the work that needed to be done, any creative impulses would have been cherished and explored to the fullest. Even in this far-away glimpse of an ancient society, we can see similarities with textile villages tucked away in remote parts of the world. People find ways of creative expression through cloth, often regardless of financial circumstance.

I found myself wondering if we had come that far at all in valuing these crafts today. While women have become a lot more independent and are no longer tied to gendered vocations, textile artisans struggle to make a living in many parts of the world. A number of crafts are dying due to globalisation and a shrinking market for the textiles. Women may not have had the opportunity to record their histories in the past, but in the present day, we do have the opportunity to educate ourselves and the wider world about the impacts of colonisation and globalisation on textiles. As spinners or weavers ourselves, we are uniquely positioned, since we have the experience of loving the craft and knowing, sadly, how little it means to people outside of these spheres.

For history lovers and lovers of mythology, there is a lot of inspiration within these pages. Reading about how symbols, colours, and numbers were used to convey various messages struck a deep chord in me. We are still able to imbue our work with meaning and magic in very personal ways. Our ancestors might have woven protective spells into their clothes before embarking on dangerous journeys  – and we might do the same today, for very different reasons. The thread of conscious intention, a source of personal power, remains unbroken even today, despite so many attempts to break it. I came away from this book with a renewed sense of reverence for this “women’s work.”

Rating 4/5

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.

The double-coated issue is coming!

Spring 2021 Sneak Peek

The Double-coated issue is twice as full and gorgeous as whatever you’re reading now! In fact, it’s so full we had to add extra pages (it comes in at a whopping 136 pages). From the softest sheep to “carpet sheep,” from Norway to Arabia, from woolen to worsted, from North Ronaldsay to Kihnu and Hungary to Soay, this issue travels around the world and is filled with sheep you’re going to want to snuggle and spin. It includes everything you’ve ever wanted to know about primitive and double-coated sheep, including separating, not separating, prepping, dyeing, spinning, plying, knitting, history, folklore, and more gorgeous images than you can shake a stick at. You’ll want this issue. 

Get your subscription in (or renewed) by February 20th to get in on the first shipping (March 10th is our ship date).

P.S. It’s also got Nancy Bush. ’Nuff said.

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.

February’s Ask Jacey

This month’s Ask Jacey question comes from Elaine, who asks, “It seems like it’s easy for spinners to spin fine but harder to spin more bulky…any secrets?

Hi there Elaine,

Thanks for asking a question I think half the spinners out there are also asking (because the other half are asking for secrets to spinning fine because spinning bulky is so darned easy for them). What I mean is – you’re not alone.

We all have a spinning spot that’s just easy and comfortable. Our groove. Our default. Our jam. It’s homeostasis, a natural rhythm where nothing special needs to be done to maintain it. I think everything has its own homeostasis. Our bodies have it: it’s the weight our body wants to be and if we want to change that, it takes some work. It’s genetic. Yarn is the same way, I think. We all have a natural spinning style and a natural spinning weight. It’s probably genetic, too (or at least stems from where, when, and from whom we learned to spin). It’s the yarn you spin where you don’t have to count treadles or twists or change your draft or prep. It just is and, boy, does it feel good.

But lots of people want something different than they already have. Often, the road to disappointment is paved with this desire for different. But in yarn, I think it’s perfectly fine and totally achievable! You should be able to spin every single type of yarn you want to spin, and you, Elaine, are in luck because it turns out that I’ve dedicated much of life to helping people get to that point.

Of course, there are all the common tips and tricks you’ve probably heard and that I totally agree with:

  • Use a slow, big pulley (or spindle shaft if you’re on a spindle) so you aren’t putting much twist in the yarn – thinner yarns need more twist and thicker yarns need less. Plus, the more twist you put in your yarn, the thinner it gets as one of the things twist does is bundle yarn down tighter and tighter.
  • Use slower feet and faster hands (or slower twirl and faster hands if you’re on a spindle). This can be tough for spinners. When you first start spinning, you probably had to work pretty hard to introduce your hands to your feet and get the two synced up together. I know I did. The longer you spin, the more difficult it becomes to break this connection. If you speed up your hands (which give the yarn less time to gather twist before it disappears into the orifice), your feet also speed up, which means you’re imparting twist faster than you were and which also means your yarn is relatively the same. So practice treadling and drafting at independent speeds (and yes, I know it’s far harder to do than to say).
  • Strip your fiber out to just a bit bigger than you want your yarn to be. This is something people recommend all the time, and it can totally help, but it can also mess up your fiber prep enough that it does the opposite. Give it a try and see which camp you fall into.

And there are the tips and tricks I totally don’t agree with:

  • Pre-draft your fiber. No. Don’t. That’s the opposite of what you should do for bulky yarn (or almost any yarn, but more on that later). You want more fibers, not fewer!
  • Turn your tension/brake waaaay up. Okay, lemme stop you right there. I disagree with this popular piece of advice. Turning your tension up can create a thicker yarn, it’s true, because the wheel will pull the fiber out of your hands on its own, zipping it into the orifice before you get a chance to thin it out. However, if spinning bulky is something you’re struggling with, you’re probably already a bit on edge, a little nervous, your palms may even be a little, dare I say it, sweaty? The last thing you need is your wheel ripping your fiber from you hands, making you feel that much more like things are out of control and you don’t know what you’re doing. You don’t need to feel like that, heck, nobody does! Back up off that tension, friend. Turn it back down to where it just takes the yarn you offer. There are better ways to spin bulky – increase your skill, not your stress!

Outside of that, Elaine, here’s what I think you should do:

Start with a nicely prepared piece of commercial top. It shouldn’t be compacted or felted, stripped or pre-drafted. I know it stinks to practice on good fiber, but if you’re using crummy fiber, you’re not going to get any good out of the practice. Get something in the medium range – such as Corriedale, Shetland, Jacob, not too long or too short. Put your wheel on your biggest pulley (some folks call this a whorl, but Judith MacKenzie told me to call it a pulley, and that’s the hill I’ll die on) and think about treadling slow. Hold your fiber like you do when you spin a worsted style yarn.

Now reach into your fiber supply with your front hand (your wheel hand) to grab the fibers you’re going to draft – but wait, before you do draft, reach into that fiber supply a little deeper and grab a few more fibers. Now when you draft those fibers forward, draft them only about half as far as you normally would. What that means is that your hands will stay closer together than usual. Your yarn should be thicker.

I’m not saying this is the correct drafting length for the fiber you’re using – I’ve got no idea what fiber you’re using – I’m just saying that to teach yourself to spin thicker, don’t pull those little suckers out as far as you normally would. Play with this a bit, changing your draft a bit this way and that, and see what it does to your yarn. Play with how far into your fiber supply you reach to grab fibers and see how your yarn changes. How thick or thin, consistent or lumpy your yarn is, with any given fiber type and preparation, is in part a play of these two things. I promise.

I’ve recorded a video to help further explain the technique.

P.S. If you are having trouble breaking up your hands and feet, try an electric wheel. If you don’t have one, you probably know somebody who does.

Do you have a question you’d like to ask Jacey? Fill out the form and maybe your question will be the one Jacey answers next!

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.

Spinners during lockdown

Hiya spinners! We want to hear what you’ve been spinning during this, the strangest of times. If you’re up for sharing, please head over here.

Here are some of the responses we’ve received so far:

“The pandemic allowed me to slow down to embrace and savor the process of spinning, instead of just relying on the end product to bring me joy. Before all the fiber shows canceled, I was so busy working on business stuff and teaching, that I concentrated more on completing a yarn and moving on to the next project. Now it matters less that a yarn is made in a timely manner. I can spin with no deadlines just for the fun of it, getting lost in the process of creating. At first my inner hermit rejoiced at the chance to stay home more. However, as the pandemic drags on, I have been surprised with how much visiting with other spinners is essential to my mental health. Virtual fiber meetups help stave off the feeling of being cut off from the fiber scene. Spinning with friends, even though no one else can see my wheel, helps to bring my brain into order.” ~Sarah H., Keokuk, IA

“During the lockdowns when all my kids were home from school, I was able to seek respite from the wackiness mostly with my spindles, getting away from it all for a minute here or a few minutes there. The past two weeks, though, found me in isolation when I tested positive for Covid-19, which meant 10 days of uninterrupted time for spinning. I feel blessed to have had a mild case, and was able to spin every day. I chose to embark on a huge (for me) spinning project, involving 4 braids of Merino that I intended to spin as 3-ply fingering weight, creating a fade by switching out the plies one at a time as I transitioned from one colorway to the next. I managed to spin around one 40g skein a day. I spun as a wonderfully pleasurable mindfulness practice, and having my hands and feet to come back to again and again made my isolation and period of illness not only tolerable, but enjoyable. I’m so grateful to have spinning in my life!” ~Adi B., Jerusalem, Israel

“I tried spinning opposing ply yarn with Southdown. I space dyed this past summer. Changing up my usual spinning by trying to make the different yarns in Sarah Anderson’s book. First time dyeing – just another fiber related addiction.” ~Lynn M., Denver, CO

“I decided to challenge level 2 of the Master Spinner program from Olds College. I have been working on homework for the program.” ~Gail M., Canada

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.

January Vlog with Jacey and Jillian

On January 24th, Jacey Faulkner and Jillian Moreno hosting the second PLY vlog, with a live virtual chat with spinners from around the world. If you missed it (or want to watch it again), you can catch up with it here. In this vlog, Jacey and Jillian share their favorite parts of the Warmth (Winter 2020) issue and give a sneak peek into the upcoming Double-Coated (Spring 2021) issue. Get behind-the-scenes information about how Jacey decides on the cover images for each issue and her confession that she just couldn’t make a decision on the picture for the Double-Coated issue as there were so many good options (and you get to see those options and which one the live viewers liked best). Great fun abounds as Jillian walks Jacey through setting up and using the Akerworks Super Skeiner (which results in a race as they try to see who can wrap their yarn the fastest). And get to know a little more about PLY’s illustrator, Kayanna Nelson, in an interview with Jillian. Finally, if you’re a PLY print subscriber, you now have digital issues included as part of your subscription; find out how to download your digital issue(s) at the 49:20 mark.

Kayanna Nelson Interview Links

Kayanna’s Instagram @stitchtogetherstudio

Stitch Together Studio

Kayanna’s inspirational Instagram accounts







Kayanna’s favorite books

Dune by Frank Herbert

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Jacey’s favorite books

100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

Ask Jacey

Do you have questions about spinning? Maybe Jacey Boggs Faulkner can help? Anything is possible, after all. We’re starting a new newsletter/blog feature where Jacey will do her best to answer your spinning questions. We’re calling it  Ask Jacey. Wanna ask something? Do it 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.

Book Review: Nini Towok’s Spinning Wheel: Cloth and the Cycle of Life in Kerek, Java

reviewed by Sukrita Mahon

A part of the Fowler Museum’s series on textiles around the world, this book explores the textiles in a small rural community in East Java. The culture and textile tradition in Kerek are extraordinarily vibrant, forming an integral part of this society. Modern-day spinners, weavers, and dyers in the west are likely to find much inspiration in its pages. It doesn’t seem so long ago that we were all cloth-makers – not for pleasure but necessity. The unique imprint of each artisan’s work somehow creates a sense of deeper connection with society, nature, and spirit.

The museum had an accompanying exhibition to this book, and the format is very much the same as an art exhibit, with many pieces of handspun and handwoven textiles featured and explained in detail. Each piece has a cultural context and is worn by certain members of society or used for certain purposes only. They indicate everything from social class, land ownership, age, and marital status to ancestry. Largely made as single lengths of cloth, they are worn by both men and women, but in recent years commercially made clothes have come to dominate the menswear.

Spinning, dyeing, and weaving are all considered mythical and ritual activities, performed mainly by the women. Nini Towok is the mythical figure of a spinner in Kerek’s oral traditions. She is considered to be visible on the surface of the moon, spinning on a wheel. With the cotton fields resembling the night sky and the stars, she feels at once close to earth and ethereal. “Part goddess, part crone, Nini Towok sends her finely spun cotton yarn to earth in the form of moonbeams.” A type of guardian spirit, she is believed to watch over each part of cloth-making, and offerings are made to her at the beginning of a project.

The dyeing process is also steeped in ritual, although the book only mentions it briefly. Natural dyes produce blacks, blues, and reds, and brown cotton is also used. The patterns are formed mainly using batik techniques (wax resist dyeing), and the symbolism is deeply connected to the natural world. Common motifs include centipedes, flowers, birds – all imbued with meaning. Some colours and symbols can be protective, and some denote youth and fertility. Abstract symbols are also used, less commonly, often in the case of men’s clothing.

The life cycle of a woman is a theme that returns again and again in the fabric of this region. From youth and marriage to motherhood, and finally old age, women adorn themselves in different ways and acquire more status with age. Special cloths are used to carry children, and these are very often handspun and handwoven, even when other clothing is not. Funeral rites also feature certain textiles that are placed on the coffin of the deceased and left there until the final moments. Afterwards, they are taken home by the family and preserved as heirlooms.

As can be imagined, environmental degradation has affected the textile practices considerably. Indigo is the only natural dye still used, since other traditional plant dyes are now difficult to come by. Traditional textile worker families are all but gone, with many people no longer interested to take up the vocation. I can’t help feeling that a lot has been left out of this book in terms of the socio-economic context, and the reader is expected to make many assumptions that may be on the idealistic end of the spectrum. For instance, many of the residents are landless labourers, who form a vulnerable demographic, subject to urban migration away from the region. There is no mention at all of how increasing globalisation might affect the future of Kerek textiles.

With such awe-inspiring textiles featured, I was left wanting more from the book. The pages about the mythology and spiritual practices connected with the textiles were too fleeting for my liking – although readers may feel a sense of familiarity in them. Since it’s a small and isolated region, there were many questions I found myself asking, for which the answers aren’t easily obtainable. For this reason, the material feels a little clinical and academic. Personally, I hope for a future in which textiles are alive with intention and meaning in our everyday life in the west – glimpses like Nini Towok make it easier to imagine.

Rating: 3.5/5

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.

Warm West Coast Wool: Salish style

words and photos by Liz Hammond-Kaarremaa

Cowichan sweaters are famous throughout the world for being thick, light, warm, and cosy. The yarns demonstrate ancient expertise with spinning warm yarns. The Cowichan (now known as Quw’utsun) First Nations of Vancouver Island on the west coast of Canada are part of the Coast Salish language family of nations surrounding the Salish Sea and Puget Sound. They, along with their neighbours, have been spinning warm yarns for thousands of years, yet sheep only arrived in the area in the mid-1850s. So how did they learn to spin such warm fibres in a land where animal fibres are rare? And what can they teach us about spinning warm yarns?

From spindle to treadle machine

Evolution of a Coast Salish spindle to an Indian head spinner

Originally the Coast Salish spun dog wool (see my article, “The Coast Salish Woolly Dog,” in the Spring 2020 issue of PLY) and mountain goat wool, sometimes mixed, sometimes alone. First, they slightly twisted fibres on their thigh into a rough roving which they then wound into balls in preparation for spinning on a spindle. The unique spindle is long at 36 inches, similar to a Navajo spindle but with a very large whorl (6–10 inches), and is spun by rolling the spindle down the thigh or lifting it in the air above the laps to twirl it. This provided a lofty thick yarn which traditionally was plied and woven into blankets. The Coast Salish adapted their unique spindle to spin sheep wool once sheep arrived in the mid 1800s.

An Indian head mounted on a Singer treadle sewing machine

Along with sheep, settlers brought treadle sewing machines. The Coast Salish, knowing their large spindles made thick warm wool, cleverly attached their spindle to where a sewing machine would sit, added a groove on the whorl to hold the drive band and a fork to hold the other end of the spindle, and spun using the treadle machine. This became known as the Indian Head Spinner or what Ashford called the Country Spinner.

Farming their own flocks

The imported sheep were mostly Merino and cross-breed Cheviot-Leicester with some purebred Southdown, Cheviot, and Leicester. By the 1880s the Cowichan Coast Salish were farming their own flocks. These were the perfect breeds for creating Cowichan sweaters. The high crimp in these fleeces create a bulky yet lightweight and bouncy yarn. The air pockets between the fibres provide warmth. If wool fibres have a lot of crimp, the fibres will push against each other, causing the yarn to puff out and creating many air pockets to capture and keep air, creating a warm yarn. If the fibres are mixed in a jumble (woolen) rather than lying parallel (worsted), the puffier the yarn will be.

Most sheep produce lanolin which provides the animal with waterproofing. The finer the fibre, the more lanolin on the sheep. Most of the sheep imported were fine or medium breeds which produce good quantities of lanolin. On the west coast where rainfall is plentiful, having sheep with good lanolin to protect them is an advantage. If the fleece is washed with lukewarm water rather than hot, some lanolin is left in, and when spun, the yarn will retain some waterproofing qualities. Fishermen not only wore Cowichan sweaters for warmth but also wore Cowichan long johns!

The fleece qualities of high crimp and lanolin are why the Cowichan sweaters were made famous – a lightweight, warm, and waterproof sweater. The sweaters were so famous that the Coast Salish have had to fight battles with fashion houses that appropriated the Coast Salish designs for company profits and no benefit to the Coast Salish.

Making Cowichan-like yarn

A lightweight bulky vest made from descendants of the original BC coastal sheep

While you can never make a true Cowichan yarn unless you are Coast Salish and integrate your culture into the process, you can make a Cowichan-like yarn using modern equipment. But remember to respect and acknowledge the Coast Salish tradition of spinning and knitting Cowichan or Salish sweaters. Be creative, and design a yarn to provide the same good qualities of Coast Salish yarn. Colour it bold or colour it subtle, but make it yours.

If you want to make a Cowichan-like yarn, start with a good crimpy fibre and spin it in the grease or gently wash it in warm, not hot, water to remove the dirt and leave some lanolin in it. You can also start with scoured wool and add lanolin before you spin or once the garment is finished by adding lanolin to a bath as you full or finish the garment. Paradise Fibers has a great instructional tutorial on how to do this.

You need to create a woolen yarn, so prepare the wool by creating rolags. Some spinning wheels are designed for spinning bulky yarns, e.g., the Ashford Country Spinner, wheels made for art yarns (Louet), those with jumbo or bulky-head attachments (Lendrum), and those with bobbin-led flyers with large bobbin capacity. But even if you don’t have one of these types of wheels, you can make do with a wheel designed for medium yarns. The Scottish-style and double-drive wheels are designed for lace yarns; hence, they have small bobbins and might give you an airy, warm, but much much thinner yarn.

An Ashford Country spinner

Choose your largest whorl; it should have a low ratio such as 4:1 or 6:1. Wheels with a large orifice and large flyer hooks are best as you are trying to spin thick yarns. However, thick does not mean dense. You are aiming for light, lofty, big bouncy yarns. Keep the air pockets in the yarn. A thick yarn can squeeze down and fit through a smaller orifice if necessary, but it should bounce back to bulky and not impede your spinning.

Bulky yarns need little twist, especially if you are starting with good crimpy, grabby fleece. If you have a bobbin-led wheel (the drive band turns the bobbin), put a lot of tension on the drive belt. Higher tension will practically grab the fibres out of your hand and onto the bobbin quickly. If you have a flyer-led wheel (the drive band turns the flyer), loosen the brake on the bobbin. Twist will build up quickly, so let it onto the bobbin even before you think it has enough twist. By the time it gets wound on, it will have enough twist. (Check out Michelle Boyd’s article “The Truth about Take-up” in the Summer 2016 issue of PLY for more information.)

Spin, as Paula Simmons describes in her classic book Spinning for Softness and Speed, using an unsupported long-draw technique. This is often a zen-like one-handed technique. Hold the rolag in one hand. Pinch off about an inch and pull the hand away from the orifice after allowing the twist to build up a little, grabbing and twisting the loose fibres to the thickness you are looking for. Keep tension on the fibres and let the twist chase your hand steadily, gobbling up the wool as you pull back to your side. Treadle slowly and then gracefully return your hand to the orifice and repeat. Relax, breath slowly, treadle slowly, and enjoy the Zen of it.

Some people suggest you pre-draft a roving to the thickness you want and let it run onto the bobbin with barely any twist. This will get you a bulky yarn but not a lightweight one. It will instead be heavy and dense, full of fibres but not air. Remember, for this yarn you want to let the air into the yarn.

If you do not have a low ratio whorl or end up with too much twist, one of our spinning saints, Judith MacKenzie, has a trick: spin a thick yarn and do not worry about putting in too much twist. Once you have filled the bobbin, take it off your spinner, put it on the floor, and run it through your spinner very quickly in the opposite direction to take out some of the extra twist.

You can use the yarn as a singles yarn or ply it. Traditionally, the Coast Salish plied the yarn for their blankets but made Cowichan sweaters from a singles yarn. If it is a singles yarn you are looking for, avoid weighting the yarn to set the twist as you are really stretching it and losing the lofty bulk you want to keep. Instead, finish them boldly in hot soapy water, agitating before plunging the yarn into cold water. You are trying to bloom or full the yarn, not felt it, but full it enough that it creates a slightly protective web around it to prevent easy pilling. Alternatively, you can full the finished product. Whichever you do, think about trying to maintain or add some lanolin to the final soaking to give the end product some weatherproofing if wanted.

Further reading

Gibson-Roberts, Priscilla A. Salish Indian Sweaters: A Pacific Northwest Tradition. Saint Paul, MN: Dos Tejedoras Fiber Arts Publications, 1989.

Gustafson, Paula. Salish Weaving. Seattle: Douglas & McIntyre, 1980.

Simmons, Paula. Spinning for Softness and Speed. Madrona Pub, 1982.

Every time Liz Hammond-Kaarremaa, a Master Spinner, sees a Coast Salish blanket or sweater, the world stands still for just a moment, but packed into that moment are many women’s lives: the spinner, her children teasing and carding, the carvers of her spindles and looms, and the ceremonies where the blanket or sweater was worn. These objects radiate those moments. Visit her website for more resources.

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.