Freshly-washed and dyed Border Leicester wool drying in the breeze on the back porch of the 1860s-era farmhouse at Kilmarnock Farm.
Saturday, I was lucky enough to take a class in fiber arts with three friends at this beautiful 300-acre farm tucked in the hills of Orlando, West Virginia, about an hour and half north of here. Ann Craven operates the Hares to Ewe Fiber Studio in a small building behind her farmhouse where she offers classes for small groups as well as private lessons in knitting, spinning, weaving, dyeing, felting, and more.
I love old farmhouses.
You just walk into an old farmhouse and it’s like your soul sighs or something. They are so comforting.
Ann took us into the farmhouse then out to the studio in the back.
She headed into the studio while we were still standing around, admiring the house and the landscape and the peacocks. Taking the class with me were Missy from the goat farm, Kathy from the sheep farm, and Mim, who has an alpaca farm.
Ann, charging onward: “Come on, girls. What are you doing? We’re here to spin!”
This was a precursor to the rest of the day in which we were torn between awe and utter bafflement.
Inside the studio, anyone at all interested in fiber arts would be tempted to drool. The walls were lined with shelves of wool in various stages of processing.
There were baskets and baskets packed with gorgeous handspun yarns.
This basket holds washed, dyed wool, ready for carding.
We were still standing around saying, Wow, while Ann was already picking up a pair of handcarders. She didn’t waste a minute–the day was packed with information, demonstrations, and hands-on practice.
Carding wool is how you create soft, lofty yarns. Using washed, dried wool, the wool is combed between carders faced with short wire teeth. This opens and straightens the fibers to prepare them for spinning (or felting).
Wool processed this way with handcarders is called rolag. (Mill-carded wool done on machines is called roving.)
Ann, showing us the carded wool.
Now, after a bit of gentle drafting (teasing the wool open by holding the wool between your hands and lightly separating the fibers without pulling them out of the fiber mass completely), it’s ready to spin!
Ann, demonstrating handspinning.
Spinning is the simple act of twisting drafted fiber. That’s it! (Ha! Just try it.)
You can spin using nothing more than a hooked stick. There are various types of handspindles, most of which are comprised of a wooden shaft with some sort of weight at the bottom and either a notch or hook at the top to attach the yarn. (You can even make your own handspindle using a dowel and compact discs.) Then there are spinning wheels, for the serious home spinning enthusiasts who want to produce more yarn more quickly.
Ann can spin like nobody’s business.
She demonstrated the use of a spinning wheel for us. We all decided we would sooner shoot our eyes out than attempt that contraption.
Our brains and fingers were already on overload practicing our handspinning.
I wished I’d known making a slip knot was so critical to starting your handspindle because I totally would have practiced that the day before.
Ann, perplexed: “Do you not know how to knit?”
There was a lot of spindle dropping and crying of, “Help! Help!” We decided we knew why she limited small-group class size to four, or maybe we were just needier than her usual students, but I think even Ann was glad when it was time to head back to the farmhouse for lunch. (Actually, she was very patient with us, though I do think she was secretly wondering how I navigate everyday life with only half a brain.)
After lunch, while everyone else was chatting and relaxing, I had to sneak outside to see the farm animals, of course.
They raise Komondor livestock guardian dogs at Kilmarnock Farm.
This one had his head stuck out of a hole in the barn like Oscar the Grouch the whole day. He about scared the doo-dah out of me when I tried getting close. I think he wanted to eat me for his lunch. He was fierce.
They also raise Border Leicester sheep, a longwool breed that makes for strong, lustrous yarn.
(They’d just been sheared the day before.)
Then I found the Angora goats.
We spied each other from afar.
They marched up the long drive to the farmhouse as if they had some serious intent and were determined to arrive at their destination.
I was their destination. How cool! My new best friends!
This one got right up close to me, right up in my face, leaned into me and…..
Then they all turned and RAN.
How rude! How disturbing! I yelled after them, “DID CLOVER TELL YOU TO DO THAT?”
By then, the lunch break was over and Ann brought everyone outside for a tour of the barn. She has shelves and shelves of fleeces from the recent shearing.
Not to mention, peacock feathers!
There was little time to ooh and ahh, though. The afternoon round of information, demonstrations, and hands-on practice started back in the farmhouse with a how-to on washing a skirted fleece.
Ann showed us how to wash wool with some of her Border Leicester fleece along with a pound from one of my Cotswold fleeces I’d brought with me. She washed the wool by soaking the portions of fleeces in hot water with Era liquid detergent. (Soak a fleece only. Never run hot water over it or agitate it while washing–that will cause the wool to felt.) Then you can spin it briefly in a washer or drain it in a large colander.
Look at that dirty soaking water! But…..
See my pretty Cotswold wool after she was done?
I asked Ann to critique my wool. She said it felt strong, had a good hand, and that the sheep were healthy. (Great news to hear from an expert!) I asked her if it seemed skirted all right, since I’m inexperienced. She said, “They’re sheep! They’re dirty!” Whew. I was afraid everybody else had clean sheep. Her skirted fleeces looked about like mine, which made me feel better. And hey, the wool cleaned up good!
With the washed wool back in a pot of clean water on the stove, Ann showed us how to dye it–with Kool-Aid! She used three packets of Kool-Aid (no sugar, plain Kool-Aid) in complementary colors for a subtle blend of greens.
She’s saying: “It’s so much fun, girls, and it’s so easy!”
Back in the studio, Ann showed us how to ply yarn and we practiced our handspinning and carding skills again. I was a quick study. Or not.
Ann, showing me for the 200th time how to load the wool onto the handcarders.
Ann, showing me for the 200th time how to card the wool with the handcarders.
Ann, saying: “There’s something wrong with her, isn’t there?”
(I made that up. Ann would never say that. SHE WAS JUST THINKING IT.)
Me, saying: “Look!!! I carded wool!”
Like nobody’s ever performed such a magic trick before! Later, Ann showed me how to spin some of my Cotswold wool without carding it. Cotswold wool is another longwool, luster breed that produces a fleece with a lot of natural crimp. (Crimp is the waviness or curls. Luster is the gloss or sheen.) Spinning it without carding (to retain the crimp) can be done to create novelty yarns for special projects.
It was an awesome day. We had so much fun and we learned so much. Watching the transformation unfold from dirty fleece to washing, dyeing, carding, and spinning really demystified it all for me. Gaining skill at handspinning is much like knitting–it takes practice and persistence. I’ve got plenty of wool to work with, so I intend to learn–I really enjoyed the whole process from sheep to yarn. (As soon as I have it ready, I’ll be selling Cotswold and Jacob rolag–ready for spinning, felting, or other craft purposes–from my two remaining fleeces here.)
Some of my Cotswold wool, washed and dyed, hanging on a tall plant stand to dry in front of the fiber arts studio at Kilmarnock Farm.
Note: I couldn’t include details and directions here for everything we learned, but watch for upcoming individual posts on washing, dyeing, carding, and handspinning wool with step-by-step instructions and photos.
*See How to Wash and Dye Wool.
Read the feature story I wrote about Kilmarnock Farm in the Charleston Daily Mail.