Tag Archives: fiber

Guest Post: Breed Specific Yarns with Beth Brown-Reinsel

There are so many sheep, and so many types of sheep, in this world. “The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (the FAO) estimated in 2006 that there are over 1300 breeds of sheep in the world, and this number does not reflect the extinct breeds.”1 It is ecologically important to have diversity in all things, including sheep breeds. These genetic adaptations have come about through changes in the environment as well as a fair amount of human fiddling around to achieve better meat production or to enhance various properties of the wool.

Merino Rams

Merino Rams

I remember that yarn shopping in the 1970s was a straight-forward affair. My favorite yarn store had a dazzling wall of colorful skeins stacked almost to the ceiling. Good old Germantown. It was 100% wool. Period. There was no clue as to what breeds were included in that skein of yarn. Actually I think it is a marvel that yarns made of blended wools can be produced with consistent results, time and time again. It takes great skill to create a blended yarn from all the various fleeces that come into a spinning mill. Most yarns are made this way–an amalgam of fleeces, mysterious to us consumers, but carefully calculated by the manufacturer to create a specific type of yarn.

Most breed specific yarns have been available commercially for just a few decades, other than Merino and Shetland, which are arguably the most recognizable breed specific yarns.

I liken varietal wines to breed specific yarns. Rather than blending different varieties of grapes (or the gene pools of different breeds of sheep), adhering to one variety, or breed, allows the characteristics of that type of grape, or sheep, to stand out. The strengths of that breed can be applied to its best use. Being a handspinner, I found myself naturally drawn to yarns from a single source.

So knowing the breed characteristics can guide you as to the best use for that yarn. Choosing a Merino or Rambouillet yarn, which is of a very fine fiber, to make a textured garment such as a gansey would typically yield patterning so soft it would not show as well as a crisper medium staple yarn, such as Colombia or Corriedale. Because the crimp is so high in finer wools, the light is absorbed more readily yielding a soft, matte look. Other wool fibers with less crimp tend to reflect the light, showing off textures to great advantage. But a fine, crimpy wool is very soft and perfect for baby clothes, or garments worn next to one’s skin.

In the mid-1990s yarns began to appear on the market that were made from one breed alone. I had started my online yarn shop and began importing breed specific yarns from the UK. Some of these breeds were quite special. The Wensleydale sheep, categorized as “at risk” by The Rare Breeds Survival Trust of the U.K., has a sheen like mohair, but can feel soft and buttery. I found it made spectacular Arans, creating deep textures that showed well with the shiny quality of the yarns.

Learn more about Breed Specific Yarns on the Woolery Blog's guest post with Beth Brown Reinsel!

The Suffolk I imported was the most bouncy, jubilant yarn I had seen and made the best cables and bobbles! (As a spinner I scoffed at the idea of Suffolk yarn at first, but learned that the Brits’ idea of Suffolk is completely different than the scratchy US version, which is bred primarily for meat.)

Suffolk Yarn - learn more about breed specific yarns on the Woolery Blog with Beth Brown Reinsel!

Suffolk Yarn

Herdwick wool is coarse and has these lovely bits of kinky white hair (kemp) in among the grey wool. I wouldn’t want to wear it next to my skin, but for outerwear that yarn would last forever.

Herdwick Yarn - learn more about breed specific yarns with Beth Brown Reinsel on the Woolery Blog!

Herdwick Yarn

Icelandic wool is often sold in cakes as a single ply yarn with little twist, called plötulopi. The fleece is double-coated, made up of a soft, shorter undercoat and a more sturdy, longer fiber. The garments made from this yarn are light, yet very warm. From the photo below, the coarser hairs can be seen, creating a fuzzy halo.

Icelandic Yarn - learn more about breed specific yarns with Beth Brown Reinsel on the Woolery blog!

Icelandic Yarn

Shetland is historically used in color knitting for which it is well suited, in part because the genetics have been quite varied in the past, yielding a wealth of natural shades. It is a crimpier, finer yarn. While textures may not show as well with this yarn, it is perfect for stranded color work, such as Fair Isle garments.

Shetland yarn in a Fair Isle sweater - learn more about breed specific yarns with Beth Brown Reinsel on the Woolery Blog!

Shetland yarn in a Fair Isle sweater

The Norwegian Spælsau has been a domesticated sheep since the Iron Age, though to prevent extinction, the gene pool was enhanced in the 1960s and 19702 with Icelandic, Finn, and Faroe Island sheep. This lovely yarn holds up well over time, having a hair mixed in with the wool (an attribute of “primitive” breeds, where the hair has not been bred out of the breed). This yarn was used in the beloved Norwegian Setesdal Lusekofte, a garment that developed in the early 1800s. If you look closely at the photo below you can see the white hairs that give a fuzzy look to the garment.

A Lusekofte made of Spælsau wool - learn more about breed specific yarns with Beth Brown Reinsel on the Woolery blog!

A Lusekofte made of Spælsau wool

The challenge for knitters then is to understand that even within a certain breed there will be wide variety. If you are buying a commercially prepared yarn, you can be assured that it has been made more homogeneous and will be relatively consistent. But there is something so special about working with a breed specific yarn for a project the yarn is so perfectly suited to. Educating yourself as to the strengths of different breeds is fun and enlightening. Knitting with breed specific yarns can become a lifelong passion.

I have listed on my website as many sources as I know of businesses that sell breed specific yarns. There are several books available now (listed below) that explore the wonderful variety of breeds and give suggestions for their respective uses.

Parkes, Clara. The Knitter’s Book of Wool. New York: Pottercraft, 2009.
Robson, Deborah and Ekarius, Carol. The Field Guide to Fleece. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing, 2013.
Robson, Deborah and Ekarius, Carol. The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing, 2011.

1FAO. 2007. State of the world’s animal genetic resources for food and agriculture. 512 pp.

bethBeth Brown-Reinsel has been passionately teaching historic knitting workshops nationally, as well as internationally, for over 25 years. Her book Knitting Ganseys has been deemed a classic. She has made three DVDs: Knitting Ganseys with Beth Brown-Reinsel, Color Stranded Knitting Techniques, and Sanquhar Gloves with Beth Brown-Reinsel. Her articles and designs have appeared in Threads, Cast On, Interweave Knits, Knitting Traditions, Piecework, Shuttle, Spindle, and Dye Pot, Vogue Knitting, Knitters magazines, as well as The Knitter, a magazine of the UK. She continues to design for her own pattern line Knitting Traditions. Beth’s website, blog, knitting patterns, and email newsletter can be found at http://www.knittingtraditions.com. Her Etsy store carries her knitting kits, DVDs and other goodies. She lives in Vermont and loves winter!


Guest Post: Teach Yourself (and Others!) to Spin with Jenn Zeyen

When I spin around people, non-spinning people, I get all kinds of reactions. I’m sure anyone who spins has gotten them too. They range from:

– confusion as to why you actually choose to spend your time this way,

“So you do this for fun?”

– to personal greed,

“Hey that’s so cool. Can you make me some yarn that looks exactly like this $45 a skein silk cashmere stuff?”

– to silent amazement.


That amazed person? The one who will watch you for as long as you are willing to spin? That person wants to learn how to spin. You should offer to teach them how.

I’ve taught lots of spinners (and knitters and crocheters). I love to teach. I would do it for free if I didn’t have to pay rent and buy cat food. Here is something my students have taught me: teachers don’t have to be perfect, they just have to be patient. So, if you know how to spin, you can teach (at the very least) the basics to someone else. Then you’ll have a spinning friend and how wonderful would that be? You could swap roving and trade spinning stories and try out each other’s new lazy kates and join a Spinzilla team together.

Okay. Maybe I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

You, the spinner, are the best resource a newbie could have. Sure there are plenty of in-print and on-line resources out there. But none of them can give what you can: on the spot help and lots of encouragement. In this post I’ve outlined my standard lesson for first-time spinners and I hope you treat it like a salad bar; take the stuff that you like and leave the rest.

Leave Distractions Behind

You’ll need some time of un-interrupted quiet. No one can learn with kids and phones demanding their attention. Find some quiet time with your friend before you get started.

Skip the Vocabulary Lesson

No one likes to learn vocabulary. (Maybe someone, somewhere out there does but they are a rare species.) Work in the important terms as they come up but skip the part where you talk and student listens. Spinning is about doing. Put some fiber in their hands!

Learning the Fiber

Speaking of fiber, start with something decent. Talk the newbie out of the low quality roving they acquired on the cheap or for free. There is a reason it was free. Short staple length, poorly combed/carded, mystery fiber is hard to spin. Save the both of you lots of frustration and go with a quality merino.

Learning the Feel of Fiber

My method is focused on doing not explaining. You could describe in great detail how to draft fiber and it would do the learner very little good. But as soon as they try it for themselves, they understand. The learning is in the feel of it.

Have them to pull the fibers apart, over and over, until there is a small mass that can’t be pulled (lengthwise) apart anymore. Point out that your student has now determined the length of the individual fibers.


Have them do this again. And again. Let them learn how far apart their hands need to be to start the fibers moving and how much force it takes.

Piles of drafted fiber

Then, you can be a bit mean challenge your student by adding some twist to the fiber and asking them to draft it. This will be helpful to point back to later when they, inevitably, let the twist travel up into the un-drafted fiber and find that they can’t draft.

Learning the Spindle

Once they have played with the fiber as much as they want, its time to learn the drop spindle. I have a few different types but I prefer Turkish spindles. They have a nice balance and are easy to get started. Easy to get the yarn off of them too, of course!

A choice of drop spindles Show your student how to attach a leader with some tough, commercial yarn. Then take it off and make them to it. And again. Repeat until they think they can do it without you watching them.

Attaching a leader to a drop spindle

Next is making that wonderful, helpful, little half hitch. Again, repeat until they can do it without you.

Making a half-hitch knot to the top of a drop spindle

Spinning with Commercial Yarn

I know. It seems silly but I’ve gotten good results by having students “spin” already-spun commercial yarn with the spindle. I call it pretend spinning. Its a good way for me to impart the following skills:

  • How to spin the spindle and keep it going
  • How to always spin in the same direction (and what Z-twist means)
  • How to wind on

With commercial yarn, I can demonstrate these things, and students can practice these things, without having to also draft. This is my method to get all of the skills that are not drafting, taught and out of the way.

Putting it all Together

Now we add in the drafting. I break off that commercial yarn, tie a loop, and have them get started. Except…

While all the stuff above is going on, I’ve been pre-drafting fiber. I get it fluffed, stripped and attenuated. I want my students to have success and lots of it. So I prep the fiber such that it needs some, but not too much, drafting.

We start with the woolen draw, inch worm method. I show them how to pinch down with the lead hand and pull… and all that stuff you already know because you know how to spin. Here is a list of things that might happen when a beginner spins for the first time:

  • Beginners always let the twist travel up into the roving. Point out that when fiber resists drafting, its because they are trying to draft twisted fibers
  • Breaks happen and the spindle drops. A beginner always thinks this is because the yarn got too thin. Experienced spinners know that yarn can be ridiculously thin and not break. Breaks happen because there is not enough twist.
  • Beginners will have trouble with, and be intimidated by, joins. Get them over this quickly by showing them how to fluff up ends and overlap them.
  • Beginners can and will do those wonderful techniques you find in art yarns. They will do all of them. Their yarn will be thick and thin, slubby, have wings and anything else you can imagine. That’s ok.

Spinning a slub Practice, practice, practice. The way to get better at spinning is to spin. The more fiber I can move through a student’s hands, the better they get.

Even so expect a beginner to be a little disheartened. What they are making will (probably) look like this:

A beginner's single


and that is nothing like what they have seen you spin. They will be frustrated but there is a simple way to get past this. You ply their yarn.

Take what’s been spun off the spindle and break it into two balls. Then ply. This is a good way to demonstrate how Z-twist singles will wrap around each other when spun S-twist. Even better, it’s a way to prove that the lumpy, rough single they spun is in fact, actual yarn.

A beginner's yarn Nothing breeds success like success. When they see their finished yarn, they will be motivated to keep spinning. When you see their face go from disappointment to wonder, you’ll be motivated to keep teaching!

What Comes Next

Next you take back your spindle! Show them where they can get their own, recommend some roving to buy, and tell them to come back when they have a few ounces spun up. Then you can show them how to ply for themselves.

After the lesson I make a pest out of myself apply gentle encouragement to keep the new spinner going. I demand pictures of what they have spun. I bully them to come to my weekly group, the Roving Crafters, and show off their beautiful creations. I forward links to helpful websites and on-line fiber sales. I have even been known to offer bribes of candy for status reports.

I hope you will give teaching spinning a try and tell me how it went. To spin yarn is to connect with the past. To teach is to connect with the person right next to you. To comment on this post is to connect with me and I live for feedback.

JennZeyenHeadshotJenn lives in Austin, Texas with two Feline Overlords, two spinning wheels, and a fiber stash that grows every time you turn your back on it. She’s taught math and science for years and took up teaching spinning, knitting, and crocheting to pay for her yarn habit. She designs knit and crochet patterns mostly for fun but every now and then a publisher will buy one. You can find her rambling about her yarn-y adventures at rovingcrafters.wordpress.com.



Cotton Tales


Cotton Bolls

Cotton has been an important part of civilizations throughout the globe for thousands of years, with a history that is every bit as rich as it is mysterious. There is even an entire wikipedia page dedicated to the history of cotton in addition to the entry for cotton!

Today, we’ll be focusing on cotton fibers for spinning, starting with where it all begins: on a tree or shrub. Cotton is actually a tropical plant, so it thrives in a hot climate and needs lots of water. Harvesting cotton is a very tricky business: if done too early or too late, the cotton fibers will be of poor quality. Cotton growers test the cotton daily to determine the ideal time to harvest either by hand or with a special machine which removes the boll intact from the plant.

After the harvest, the cotton is ginned to remove seeds and remaining parts of the boll from the cellulose fiber. Most of you probably remember the name Eli Whitney from your grade school days: in 1793, he invented the cotton gin and revolutionized the way cotton was processed, giving way to the modern cotton industry we know today. Prior to the invention of the cotton gin, the cotton fibers were painstakingly separated from the seeds by hand!


Cotton Sliver

Once the cotton is successfully separated from the seeds, it is usually carded into a preparation known as sliver. This is a preparation which is thinner than roving, and many commercial cotton yarns are spun from sliver. Cotton is a popular choice for warm-weather projects, but many spinners are intimidated at the thought of spinning cotton fibers due to their short staple length.


Cotton Punis

Luckily, there are a few preparations which can make working with cotton much easier! Spinning from cotton sliver is a great place to start, since the fibers are combed into alignment when processed in this fashion.

Another preparation to try is cotton punis, which are similar to rolags . You can make your own or purchase ready-to-spin punis; while they can be spun on any wheel or spindle, they work especially well with the Charkha, for which they were designed.



A charkha is a spinning wheel which is ideal for spinning short-stapled fibers such as cotton, and it was made famous by Gandhi, who used it as a symbol for the Indian independence movement against British rule. In addition to spinning cotton, a charkha would come in handy for spinning angora, silks, or very fine wool.

Finally, cotton can be spun from the seed! This produces a very fine thread  and – believe it or not – is quite simple, as you can see in this video:

In our next blog post, we’ll have a special guest who will share tips for using cotton to spin textured, non-traditional yarns.

Thanks for joining us!

All the best,

Chris, Nancy, and the entire Woolery team


Skillbuilding for Spinners

Spinzilla will be here before you know it, and if you’re planning on spinning with Team Woolery, we’ve got a few tips to help your hone your skills this month!


BFL Fleece

If you’re new to the  world of spinning, you might be wondering what type of fibers you should try first. Prepared tops are the easiest to manage, and there are a few breeds we recommend for beginning spinners such as Blue-Face Leicester (BFL), Polwarth and Merino. Experienced spinners may want to try their hand at something new, and we have a new video in our Ask the Woolery series this month showing our easy-to-follow tips for washing raw fleece. With the abundance of wool festivals and other fibery events this fall, it’s a great time to give spinning raw fleece a try!

If you have just graduated to wheel spinning, you might be wondering about the differences between single and double drive systems or, similarly, the differences are between Scotch and Irish tension. Have no fear – we explain all in our Ask the Woolery series, or you can click here to read our informational Spinning Wheel page on our website! If you’re still getting the hang of wheel spinning, you’ll want to spend some time this month getting more familiar with each option to see what works best for you.


Spinning Wheel Set Up for Double Drive

Another important skill to have is the ability to properly maintain your wheel. This will not only make spinning easier and faster, it will make your investment last longer! You can check your manufacturer’s instructions or click here for our maintenance tips here on The Woolery Blog. Before you give your spinning wheel a workout for Spinzilla, you’ll want to make sure everything is ship-shape!

Finally, all spinners will want to become pros at measuring their yarns since the goal of Spinzilla is to see which team can spin the most yardage. There are several ways to do this: you can use a Niddy Noddy (below is our easy video tutorial), a Yarn Balance (featured last month on our blog) or a yardage counter.

All the best,

Chris, Nancy, and the entire Woolery team

Handspun Heaven

Many handspinners raced to the Tour de Fleece finish line on Sunday with several beautiful skeins of handspun yarn added to their stash. Below are just a few from Team Woolery – click here to view more in our Ravelry group!


Do you find yourself wondering what to make with your handspun creations? We have a few suggestions in today’s blog post, and there are also some great reference books such as the Spinner’s Book of Yarn Designs or Spin to Weave to come to your rescue! 

We’ve come across some lovely weaving projects using handspun yarns on Weavolution recently – below are just a few ideas to inspire you!


L-R: Sofa Pillows, Saori Scarf, Twill Blanket, Ruana.

For handspinning knitters, Knittyspin is a really excellent source for free patterns – you can view all of their pattern archives here!


Ravelry is another great source for patterns and inspiration. If you’ve only spun a small amount yardage-wise, look for small projects such as scarves, hats, mitts, or baby items:


L-R: One Row Handspun Scarf, Handspun Slouch Hat, Handspun Fingerless Gloves, Crochet Handspun Baby Socks.  

You can also mix small amounts of your handspun with a commercially available yarn for colorwork and stripes, or use it as an accent edging on a special project. Finally, if you’ve spun enough to make a sweater or socks, there are patterns for that, too!


L: Handspun Sweater; R: Simple Handspun Socks.

Plus, you can always sub in your handspun yarn for any pattern if you are able to calculate WPI correctly. Not sure how to do that? Don’t worry, we’ve got an easy video tutorial on our YouTube Channel!

Now that you have a little inspiration, we can’t wait to see what you’ll create with your handspun yarns. Happy Spinning!

All the best,

Chris, Nancy, and the entire Woolery team


Armchair Travel, Woolery-Style

kumihimoSummer is officially here! For many folks, this is the time of year to take that adventurous trip or relaxing vacation you’ve been dreaming about. Sometimes, however, a staycation is closer to reality. If you’re traveling near (not far) this year, consider trying a little armchair travel with crafting inspiration from around the globe!

Saori Weaving is a freeform weaving technique from Japan which was recently featured in Handwoven Magazine; it can be done on a portable rigid heddle loom and is a great technique for beginning weavers. More than simply a technique, Saori weaving is a philosophy that focuses on individuality and creativity rather than trying to create a “perfect” looking woven cloth.

backstraploomAnother portable craft that is popular right now at The Woolery is Kumihimo, the art of Japanese braiding. A special stool (called a marudai) is used to support bobbins and hold the working threads. Many bobbins can be used, to create very complex braids. Pet leashes and collars are just a few of the useful projects you can make with this exciting technique! There are many South American cultures with a rich weaving history as well.; a portable backstrap loom (shown at left) is a great way for novice weavers to start exploring these traditions by weaving colorful sashes, straps, and bands.

cashgoatSpinners can travel the globe with fibers from a variety of locales: Louet’s Canterbury Prize Wool fibers are raised with care in New Zealand, or perhaps you’d prefer to sample British sheep breeds such as Herdwick, Masham, or Shetland (just to name a few!). Traveling eastward, you can indulge in Mongolian Cashmere fiber, which is among the softest and best in the world: it is hand-combed from each Cashmere goat (shown at right) in the spring as the weather warms and the undercoat naturally begins to shed. Another exotic fiber to try spinning is Muga Silk top, a ‘wild’ silk from the Antheraea Assamensis worm which is native to the Assam region of India. Traditionally only royalty was allowed to wear the golden fabric of Muga silkworm!

Happy Exploring!

All the best,

Chris, Nancy, and the entire Woolery team

Connect with the Past: Exploring ‘primitive’ sheep breeds

As we delve deeper into the wonderful world of fiber, we’ll discover that there are many breeds of sheep who have quite literally weathered history unchanged by modern breeding programs. Many of these breeds can be traced back hundreds of years – some even a thousand! Iceland, Norway and the UK are just a few countries whose sheepy inhabitants have their own unique history.

The complex fleece of primitive breeds also tells their story. These breeds grow double coats consisting of a soft, insulating undercoat coupled with a hardy outer coat which protects them from the harsh elements which they have endured over centuries. These coats typically come in a variety of natural colors beyond white, most likely to act as camouflage for sheep who had to fend for themselves: many breeds were deposited on remote islands by the Vikings and Spanish explorers as a sort of “insurance plan” in the event of a shipwreck so that the crews wouldn’t starve.

Today we’ll profile three primitive breeds whom you may have encountered at a fiber festival: Icelandic, Jacob, and Shetland. You can find out more about primitive breeds in Deb Robson and Carol Ekarious’ Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook or Clara Parkes’ Knitter’s Book of Wool.

icelandicsheepIcelandic Sheep
This breed’s history can be traced back over 1,000 years, when the Vikings introduced this hardy breed of sheep to Iceland. Their dual coat is unique because it can be spun together in a traditional Lopi-style Icelandic yarn, or separated by hand for a special project. The soft undercoat (called the thel) boasts a micron count of 19-22, a fineness that is similar to Merino; the coarser outer coat (called the tog) has a micron count of 27-30 and often behaves similarly to mohair. This breed comes in a variety of natural colors and is excellent for outerwear and felting projects. 

For more information about this breed, please visit the Icelandic Sheep Breeders of North America website.

jacobsheepJacob Sheep
These sheep were once a popular ‘novelty’ animal, roaming parks and estates in England for many years dating back to the 1700s. Their large horns and spotted black and white coats are quite striking, and unlike other primitive breeds, they do not have a dual fleece. However, each color patch is often unique (both in staple length and micron count) which gives this fleece a broad micron range of 27-35 microns.

For more information about this breed, please visit the Jacob Sheep Breeders Association website.

shetlandShetland Sheep
This breed dates back to the bronze age, most likely deposited on the rocky islands from which they get their name by the Vikings over 1,000 years ago. This breed is available in a variety of natural colors; despite having many colored variants bred out of the line at the height of the Shetland woolen industry, 11 natural colors and 30 markings remain today, though some are rarer than others in the quest for bright white wool. The fleece is a joy to spin with; each fiber can be drawn from the lock with ease.

For more information about this breed, please visit the North American Shetland Sheepbreeders Association website.

All the best,

Chris, Nancy, and the entire Woolery team