Sweet Afton Vest : spin the yarn

by Lori Law

The collar on the Sweet Afton vest is the perfect opportunity to take a small amount of hand-spun and use it to dramatic advantage.  In my case, I decided I would like the collar to be done up in a heathery yarn, one of my very favourite types of yarn.  I find it appealing because you can incorporate all sorts of colour combinations but the effect is much less intense than if you were to use the same colours in a hand-dyed roving.  (I do think the vest would look smashing with a collar in hand-dyed tones, however – I have plans to create another one in a lighter weight with more dramatic effects, but I am digressing).

So, today, we’re here to discuss how to create a heathered yarn using a drum-carder (if you are adept at using hand carders/combs, this may be of some use to you as well) to blend different fibres and colours together.

Here we go.

Choose your colours and fibres.  I tend to choose fibres which like to hang out together (ie. similar wools, or perhaps wool + camelid) because it’s much easier when it comes to  both carding and spinning if you’re using fibres which like to hang out together.  When you are choosing colours, choose one or two which you want to be your base colour.  I always have about 50% of my total fibre be this base fibre, or a combination of two fibres to be the base fibre (in this case, each of those two will be about 25% of the total fibre).

Decide how much total fibre you will need. In my case, for my size, the pattern indicated I would need about 165 yds.  Since I know my finished yarn should come out about 740 ypp, I could do the math to determine the approximate weight of fibre required.

Here’s the math:  740 ÷ 16 = 46.25 yds per oz.  My finished yardage is supposed to be somewhere around 165 yds (hopefully a little more).  So we then divide the total yards by the yards per oz calculation:  165 ÷ 46.25 = 3.56 oz (about 101 grams).

OK.  So for simplicity’s sake, let’s up the total fibre I’m going to spin to about 4 oz, to take care of any possible fibre loss in the carder and/or during spinning.  So, in such a case, I’m looking to have a finished yarn of about 185 yds, give or take a few yards.  (4 x 46.25 = 185 yds).

Next:  weight out your fibre and divide out colours. This can be achieved in various ways.

Using a pre-determined weight of fibre you have in your stash: If you have a pre-determined weight of fibre in roving or tops (ie. you know what you have on hand is 8oz and you would like to incorporate 1 oz of Gray Shetland as part of this heathery yarn) you can unroll the entire weight and fold it into sections (half = 4 oz, then fold the 4oz in half and half again … yes, fractions! By doing so, you will be able to mete out 1 oz of your chosen fibre.

Sometimes, rather than breaking off pieces of fibre at random, even if I know I’m taking 4 oz, if I start with 8 oz in a bag of such and such, when I know want to use a partial amount of fibre rather than a whole 8 oz for a project, I will split the 8 oz into 8 equal lengths before removing any of the fibre from the bag.  So when I decide I’m going to card some of a particular fibre into a project, I know when I pull a piece out of the bag, it is a 1 oz piece.  If I leave behind a piece which is less than a full oz, I will be able to determine this based on the other pieces in the package, or I will separate smaller than 1 oz amounts into separate storage.

Of course, the more direct approach is to use a scales.  If you are going to be carding batts regularly which requires you to know how much of a particular fibre is incorporated into a pre-determined weight of finished yarn, you will probably want to invest in a postal scales.  They are usually about $30-$40 in Canada, and certainly do not wind up being expensive over the long term.  My scales has been with me for about 7 years, used regularly and is still in fine shape (well worth the $5 per year I have invested, and possibly a $4 cost per year in batteries… they tend to last a long while).  I use a plastic container on top of my scales which is then tared to start at zero, removing the weight of the container.

In the process of weighting out your fibre additions, determine your fibre recipe.  First, determine what your base colour(s) will be, as mentioned above – they will be about 50% of your total fibre.  In my case, I chose a Black Corriedale and Gray Shetland.  To get to my final destination of 4 oz, I added to the bucket on my scales the following:

1 oz of Gray Shetland, 1 oz of black Corriedale, smaller amounts of red, green, blue and fuchsia Corriedale to make up the 4 oz.  2 oz for my ‘base’ yarn and smaller amounts of the rest.  Try to add things to your container in single pieces.

My goal using black and the Shetland as a ‘base’ is for a darker, charcoal yarn, with heathered bits of the other colours here and there.

Next:  Decide how many plies you are going to spin and divide your fibre into 1, 2 or 3 parts.  To keep things simple (and to avoid having to weigh again and again) I take each section of fibre and divide it evenly (again, by folding and then separating into pieces at the fold, widthwise) into one group per batt.  Then, I make sure I do not mix up my groups by either positioning each group well away from each other or placing each group into separate bags or containers.  Interruptions happen (quite regularly at my house) and it’s much simpler to say, ‘oh, I was using this group before [insert interruption here] happened’ and carry right on when you can return to carding, even if it’s two weeks later, rather than sorting through different pieces of roving/clumps of fibre and trying to calculate exactly where you were at.

Onto carding: yay!  This is the fun part (well, the fun part of preparing batts for spinning).  I love this part of the process because this is when the artistic stuff happens (sort of like watching things come together in the mixing bowl).  And it whets my appetite for the actual spinning (which is the next part I really enjoy.  Don’t you?).  If you are working with none rovings/tops, you may wish to comb/card each colour/fibre separately to loosen the fibres and remove any noils, etc. before you begin blending things together for your actual batts.  I use a mini drum-carder for most of my batt-making, because I am not yet skilled enough to use combs and a dizz.  Someday, I hope I will be.  (Digressing, again).

Make notes. That is, write down your recipe for your batt.  It might not make a difference in the end product, how you load your fibre onto the carder (cards/hackle).  Each batt could still come out to be identical in the end.  But, then again, maybe not.  And why take chances?

In my case, my recipe looks something like this:

Step 1 •
1/2 shetland
1/2 black
1/2 black
1/2 shetland

The “1/2″ tells me for each batt, I divided the Shetland and the black into two equal sections and loaded them onto the carder as noted above, in that order.  That is for the first run through the carder.  The fibres will be ‘together’ as a unit when you pull them off, but they will still be large, mostly separate, long chunks of colour.

For the second run-through, the resulting batt off the first run was stripped into quarters lengthwise, and run through the carder again.  This time, the fibres will be a little more blended.

Finally, for a third run-through, I split the resulting batt in half lengthwise, and re-carded.

So, the next two parts of the recipe are:

Step 2 •
Split into quarters lengthwise.

Step 3 •
Split in half lengthwise.

And, then, voila!  You roll your nicely blended fibres off your carder (dizen the fibre from your combs, etc.).  Your batt is complete.  Lather, rinse, repeat for each batt.

Spin each batt into a single as desired.


Voila (again!)!

Pretty Yarn.

Technical details:
Spun on a Schacht Ladybug, fast whorl (smaller setting), semi-worsted (short backwards draw with lead hand controlling the twist – I find this really helps to avoid noils when spinning mixed fibres).  Each batt was spun end to end after splitting into thirds lengthwise.  2ply, plied using a slightly larger whorl.  Balanced ply (finished with a warm bath with minimal distressing; hung to dry).  185 yds per 4 oz, 740 ypp.

Photos © Lori Law

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