Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Salish Sweater

While the wind howls around the rooftop this afternoon, I am dreaming up a warm and cozy Salish or Cowichan type sweater to knit as a christmas present for a special someone. I have long had this dream. I bought a book in the 1980s: Salish Indian Sweaters, A Pacific Northwest Tradition, by Priscilla A. Gibson-Roberts. Over the years I have pored over this book (the pages are starting to fall out), I've used some of the graphed designs in lighter weight sweaters and hats (one of which recently traveled from Canada to Mexico along the great divide on a bicycle... yep, that's my son, Kina... who coincidentally is back in the Pacific Northwest. He's the one who put in a sweater request!) The sweater I'm planning to knit has the same birds that are on Kina's hat.

I carded up some white and dark grey wool together to make a 'salt and pepper' yarn for the main color. The border will be a natural dark grey/black, and the designs will be knit with a dark brown. In order to get this dark brown I needed to go for a walk with my dog, Claws.

We've had gales blowing the past few weeks, first from the south, then from the north. The happy result is lots of twigs and branches littering the roads and trails covered with lichens. I do not pick live lichens from the trees, but these that have blown down to my foot level are perfect for what I need. I gathered a grocery bag full on our three mile walk. I decided to dye some grey yarn that I have on hand, spun by my mother a few years ago. It is nice and thick, and the darkness of the grey will result in a rich dark brown (I hope) after cooking with lichens.

I dug out my canning kettle, which happens to be the largest pot I have, and filled it with water. Next I put in a layer of lichen, then the yarn, then another layer of lichen. I put my hot plate outside (lichen cooking makes for a strong earthy, not unpleasant, smell... better outdoors), put the pot on it, turned it on high, and let her cook. When the pot began to boil, I turned down the heat and let the brew simmer for an hour. I peaked at the yarn a few times, and gave it all a stir in the process.
The story continues ....

Saturday, November 14, 2009

More on Wool Washing

Last summer I had a pile of fleeces to wash. I was having difficulty with getting dirt out of the tips of the locks. Fortunately I came across and article in Spin Off Magazine (something fairly recent, I didn't write down the date) entitled "On Washing Fleece" by Judith Mackenzie Mcguin. She mentioned an old fashioned way of washing fleece, which I'd never heard of before, and I learned a new word: Suint. This little substance is excreted by the sheep and sticks to the wool fibers. It is a natural detergent! When a sheep gets rained on, or wades through a river, the suint goes in to action and rids the sheep's coat of dirt. Judith goes on to describe a method of washing wool that was developed in New Zealand that makes use of suint as a cleanser. And from here I'll quote the article:

"This method i s best done outside and far from your neighbors; it does smell foul, but the smell washes right out of the wool. This method has the lowest environmental impact (minimal water use, no chemicals, and the wash water is good for gardens or compost boxes) of any method I've used. Its main drawbacks are that it smells terrible while you are using it, it takes time to get the process started, and while it works wonderfully on many types of fleeces, it doesn't completely scour out fleeces with high lanolin content. It also requires a soft water supply.
To set up the bath, take any dirty fleece, preferably something with a high grease weight and soak it in a big tub of water (garbage can works fine) for 5 to 7 days. Keep it warm - room temperature if possible. The wash water will start to ferment, it will smell bad and sometimes a slight white film will occur. Remove the fleece, rinse and give it a quick wash in hot, soapy water; rinse in clear water. Put the next fleece you want to wash directly in to the dirty water. Let it sit until the fleece, when rinsed, is clean - usually two days. Rinse well in cold water and dry.
This method works well for luster longwools like Lincoln and Romney or primitive breeds like Shetland, Icelandic and Finnsheep. I've also used it successfully with Down breeds like Dorset and Oxford Downs. It is a great prewash for high grease fleeces like Merino, Cormo and Rambouillet. Use the fermented water over and over; the more you use it, the better it gets. Don't worry that it looks dirty - use the water until, as they say in Montana, it is too thick to swim in and too thin to plow."

Okay, thank you Judith! In my usual manner with recipes, I changed the formula to fit my circumstances. I had 10 fleeces to wash, and the weather forecast hot and sunny for the next week. I dragged out an old rubbermaid garbage can and a 50 gallon plastic barrel and filled them both up with water from the tap (I think our water is soft, but am not sure). I proceeded to stuff all the fleeces in to these two containers, which was a moderately snug fit. Then I covered the barrels with a piece of plywood and went off and did other things for a full week while they 'cooked'.

The seventh day dawned clear and sunny. I built a roaring fire in the hot tub and in two hours I had 100 gallons of hot water ready to go. Sometime during the week I had stopped in at the grocery store and bought a large bottle of cheap (Suave?) coconut flavored shampoo. I got the wheelbarrow and a few 5 gallon buckets and started in on my wool washing day.

Yes, the brew was pretty smelly, but not worse than some things i have encountered. I lifted the masses of wool out of the first barrel and onto a large screen I'd set up on two stumps near the garden. Here the wool dripped while I carted buckets of the smelly water into the garden and dumped in on my rhubarb patch and other spots hungry for some nitrogen. When the barrel was empty, I rinsed it out and filled it with fresh water. Pressing the wool down on the screen removed most of the smelly water, and back in to the clean water barrel it all went. As it was soaking, I emptied the next barrel in the same manner. Then I lifted the fleece from the first barrel into the wheelbarrow, put the next batch of fleece into the (somewhat) fresh water, and carted batch #1 down to the hot tub. I went back and got the screen, which I set up on a couple or three overturned buckets on the lawn where I put the wool from the wheelbarrow and let it drip while I got the washing part set up. I bucketed hot water from the tub into my portable laundry sink (I would never go so far as washing wool directly in our hot tub!), squeezed in a handful of shampoo, squeezed out as much excess water from the fleece as I could, and plopped it into the sink. The water was about 90 degrees, not hot enough to worry about felting. I swished it around a bit until it looked clean, then gently lifted it back on to the screen where it could drip while I put the next batch in the sink.

Every two batches, I emptied the sink, filled with fresh water and rinsed.. then added shampoo and washed another two batches. I also carted the clean wool up the hill to the washing machine and spun it out every time I got a wheelbarrow full, then spread it out to dry on more screens set up on sawhorses around the yard. I did take photographs of this process, but unfortunately my computer crashed, taking all my photographs with it to its digital grave.

My wash day went on for a long while before I was done washing all 10 fleeces. I was pretty exhausted! However, I used only half the bottle of shampoo, and the fleeces came out white and fluffy, cleaner than I've ever gotten in the past. In the future I might revise my method as follows: Start with 5 five gallon buckets with lids (black if possible). Start soaking the fleeces all at once, wait a week, then wash one fleece per day! I'll keep you posted!