New blog for the new year

Time to change your bookmarks, as I’m retiring quenouille. From now on, I’m blogging at my own website.


In my post about Pine Hill Farm, I neglected to mention that the owner, Anna-Maria, is an accomplished hand-dyer. She works mostly with a merino-tencel blend that she uses for felting scarves and other objects. Before I visited her farm in October, I saw this example of her work for sale at Ariadne:

I loved the colour combination, especially the little spots of green among the blue and the orange. I wanted to preserve the colours as much as possible in the finished yarn, something I usually do by chain-plying, but I also wanted to make a laceweight yarn. One of the drawbacks to chain-plying is the little bump you get at the start of each chained section, something that usually gets hidden in a thicker yarn but stands out quite a bit once the WPIs go up. So, I decided to split the roving lengthwise and spin it in two parts, and hope that the colours matched up. Each half of the roving I split again three times and spun them in the same succession, and the resulting yarn matched up… pretty close. In some places the colours match, but there is a little bit of barber-poling in other sections, and the colours faded immensely once they were thinned out to laceweight width. Well, good enough. You can see where the orange mixes with the blue in this picture:

With only two ounces I was limited in what I could make with the yarn. I thought perhaps I could get a shawl out of it, and worked a simple trianglular leaf lace pattern, starting from the apex and working up:

Pretty, I think, despite the uneven stripes. However, halfway through the ball it’s clear I don’t have nearly enough for a shawl, and unless I start over it will be destined to be purely decorative. As much as it hurts to rip back all that work, I’m going to start again and make a narrow rectangular stole out of it (although keep a leafy pattern).

Mohair embroidery thread

I frequently buy dyed mohair locks from a local angora goat farm, Wellington Fibres, for my intermediate spinning class. As part of my recent fascination with embroidery, I tried out the mohair as a potential material for thread, with fairly good results. The next batch I’ll get some photos up of the whole process, from locks to combed top to spun thread, but for now here’s the finished product:

The first bit I spun about as fine as the alpaca top in my last post:

fine mohair thread

Mohair, in case you’re wondering, is a trickier fibre than wool to spin. It’s a very smooth fibre with a wave to it rather than crimp, and though it takes dye like nothing else, it’s really got to be convinced to hold itself together in yarn form. After my singles drifted apart a couple of times I realized I needed more twist than I was used to. For the second attempt, I decided to go finer, and therefore put in a LOT more twist. Even on the smallest whorl on the fast flyer I still had to be conscious of adding more twist. I do like the finished result, though:

finer mohair thread

That’s close to the finest I’ve ever spun, I think. And how does it work in its intended purpose? I practiced a few stitches on an old dark blue quilt block and they came out pretty nicely, but unfortunately getting good photos of the result eluded me. I’m going to try again on plain, natural twill and with any luck the stitches will show up better. Either that, or get a new camera already.

From printing to pdfs

For all of the courses I teach, I send like to send participants home with class notes that they can reference later. I cover a lot of material and it’s easy to miss a detail or two, and it frees up students from having to write anything down. In the past I’ve had booklets printed up and handed them out at the start of class, which has worked fine, but I usually end up with a few too many. Given that I’m always updating the notes, I’ve ended up with a stack of older booklets that I don’t have much use for, which is both a waste of money and an unnecessary negative environmental impact.

When I taught at Ariadne a couple of weeks ago, however, I decided to offer my students a choice: I could either email them a pdf of the notes after class or mail them a hard copy. Everyone enthusiastically chose the pdf, saying they’d prefer to save paper and were more likely to lose a printed booklet, anyway. So, from now on I’ll offer all of my students the same choice. I usually have one or two people who don’t have email, and I’ll be happy to mail them a hard copy, but I predict the pdf will remain the more popular version, and I’ve solved my problem of excess outdated notes.

All that being said, for my next intermediate spinning class, I will be having one sheet of cardstock printed up for each participant. I took a few classes from Kaye Collins back in Colorado and she gave us all yarn sample cards to save lengths of each type of yarn we spun, along with a few lines to note the style of preparation and spinning:

I’ve used it a few times to help myself make similar yarns to the ones I spun in her classes. I also like the tactile part of it; notes can tell you a lot but being able to see and feel the yarn is a greater inspiration to try spinning that way again:

Like Kaye, I use a variety of preparations and fibres in my intermediate-level class. Although everyone goes home with a chain-plied sample skein of everything they spun, I think the addition of the sample card (as well as the usual notes) will help keep everyone confident and inspired to practice the new techniques they learned.

A few weeks back, my post on cashmere and climate change was featured on the Maisonneuve blog. Thanks to the Maisy staff!

Spinning for embroidery

Shortly I’ll post about my a trip I took to the Laurentians back in August, which included a stop at Laurentian Alpacas, the source of the fibre for the project in this post. For now, though, a bit about my ambition to spin embroidery thread from local materials…

For the past several months I’ve been mulling over ideas for using fibre as a medium for art, rather than its more craft-designated use as a base material for garments (the distinction between art and craft is something I’ve been mulling over too, but that’s something for another post altogether). Many fibre artists use felt and create beautiful work, but my limited forays into needle-felting haven’t been too inspiring for me. Scrumble crochet leads to some amazing pieces, but I haven’t found that to be for me either. Rather coincidentally, I started thinking about getting into embroidery right about the same time I discovered a brand new website devoted to the topic. I was excited to learn and use the techniques on the site to create my own pieces but, as with most of my other textile activities, I thought why not spin my own yarn for it? I went a step further and decided to use fibre only from local, small-scale farms (and am kicking myself for not bringing home some wool from my visit to Pine Hill!).

The yarn for crewel work, a type of embroidery done using wool, is a worsted 2-ply from long-stapled fibres such as Border Leicester. I had some fairly long-stapled alpaca combed top–Laurentian Alpacas had one fleece milled into top this year, and I bought a significant chunk of it–and gave it a go. Using the fast flyer on my Lendrum, I spun a fine worsted yarn that I then plied:

It was tricky getting the right balance between enough twist to hold the single together, but not so much that it felt wiry and inflexible. Fairly typical of spinning alpaca worsted, I think. At any rate, I’m pretty happy with the results but the true test will be when I try it out in its intended purpose. I’ve got some mohair locks to try out next, and next time I’m in Montreal I’ll probably pick up some of the Border Leicester at Ariadne…

A trip to Pine Hill Farm

A couple of weeks ago I made a visit to Pine Hill Farm in Hemmingford, Quebec, about one hour south of Montreal and close to the New York border. As part of an article I’m writing for Spin-Off, I decided to feature Pine Hill as a source of fleece and other spinning fibre in the Montreal region. I’d already seen their product for sale at Ariadne Knits (including yarn made from a sheep whose fleece is inexplicably uniformly canary yellow) and their small Border Leicester flock in scenic Hemmingford seemed like an excellent choice for the article.

When I made contact with the owner, Anna-Maria, she asked if I’d be open to teaching a spinning workshop for her and a couple of friends on the day of my visit. So, with spinning wheel, camera, and a lot of coffee in tow, I made the three-hour drive into southwestern Quebec. The area alternates between apple orchards and stands of sugar maples, and as such receives a healthy bit of tourist traffic in early fall and early spring.

Pine Hill itself sprawls across acres of rolling, rocky land and is home to a few dozen Border Leicesters and crosses, seen here walking back to the barn:

Anna-Maria could name every sheep as it walked by and tell me about the characteristics of each one’s fleece. Most were wary of us but a few bottle-fed lambs walked right up for a pat:

Speaking of the fleece, it was beautiful–Border Leicesters have a medium wool with a high lustre that grows in tight ringlets. I learned that the Border Leicester was the favoured breed in this part of Quebec, brought there by Scottish immigrants and popular because of their strong fleece and hardy constitution. Border Leicester ewes are good mothers and the breed does well in harsher climates. Fleece, on the sheep:

Teaching the workshop was a bit of challenge due to the wheels involved–two participants had antique Quebec production wheels, originally made for spinning great quantities of very fine yarn as fast as possible, and tricky even when in pristine condition. Most of the antique Quebec wheels out there are in need of repair or at least adjustment, and the ones in the workshop certainly fell into this category. I was impressed at the tenacity of their owners, though, who kept spinning despite the wheels’ tendency to suddenly stop working. Everyone spun a bit on my Lendrum and was amazed that spinning could be so easy and trouble-free! I’d love to get my hands on a restored Quebec wheel, actually–emphasis on restored. 😉

Anna-Maria and I also took a trip down to the road to Sue Heller’s farm, home of the annual Roxham Wool Gathering which draws participants from Montreal and beyond (including my friends at Ariadne). Sue’s got a small flock guarded by a geriatric and very well-bred Thoroughbred mare named Maggie. Maggie was initially unsure of these strange woolly creatures but now guards them as well as any dog:

It was great to meet Sue, who has been spinning for years and years. She was surprised to learn of the popularity of spinning in my former home of Colorado, as it really hasn’t experienced the same kind of renewed interest in Quebec that it has elsewhere. I speculated that up until fairly recently, spinning in Quebec was far from a leisure activity–it was work, and there was lots of it to be done to bring in even a small income. Sue told me that on the old Quebec farms, older unmarried female family members (“spinsters,” if you will) were allowed to spin by the fire as cold temperatures caused the wool to break. (Something Sue found out for herself at an outdoor demo in early spring one year.)

Sue dyes much of her yarn herself, and experimenting with a copper mordant (and no dye) she came up with the light green shown in the little rat here. I thought he was Yoda, at first (come on, don’t you see it?):

At the end of a glorious fall day I headed back through the maples and apple farms, over the St. Lawrence river (a few times), back to Ontario. Look for the photos in Spin-Off’s spring issue next year.