Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Icelandic fleece and Distaff experiments

I had the day off from modeling, so I decided to start processing the Icelandic fleeces that I got in the mail this past week. (This is the start of a long term historical fiber arts experiment, due next February.) First thing I did was to take one of the fleeces into the back yard, and lay it out to see what condition it was in. To my pleasure, it already been skirted of the worst of the dung. You can see Kaylee here checking it out. She was most confused as to where the rest of the sheep had gotten to.
After checking it out, I grabbed large handfuls of fleece and shook them out. Some vegetable matter and a lot of second cuts fell out. Second cuts are small bits of fiber left from where the shearer had to make a second pass when she was giving the sheep its hair cut. My other dog, Malcolm, was happy to supervise this process. I left the bits of fleece to blow around the back yard and turn to compost, and loosely stuffed the rest into lingerie bags.

I brought the bags of fleece inside, and set them to soak for 10 minutes in my washing machine on hot, with a squirt of Dawn. Soak only--no agitation! I only wanted to remove dirt and grease, not make felt. I used the spin cycle on the machine to remove the water, took out the bags, and refilled the machine with plain hot water. The bags went back in to soak for another 10 minutes. I repeated that two more times before the water finally ran clear, and there was no residue left on the inside of the machine. Then the fleece went on a rack to dry for a couple of days.

In the mean time, I've been experimenting with the Medieval spindle that I put together last night. It is kind of wobbly, and doesn't spin for as long as my modern spindles do. I poked around the web for a bit, and found that this is the nature of the beast--because it was made to be used with a distaff. If you look here: http://www.larsdatter.com/spinning.htm you'll find loads of period illuminations of the spindle in use, and almost every one of them uses a distaff. One hand stays up near the fiber source to draft out the fibers, and the other hand usually hovers an inch or so above the spindle. I went back out into the yard and cut a stick for a makeshift distaff, and tried it out.

This actually worked pretty well. Within minutes, my hands were in the same position as the spinners in the manuscripts. I could park the stick with the fiber under my arms, or use my legs to brace it, and pull right from the source. The distaff keeps it under control (this will be great when spinning outside on a windy day!), and the fiber stays neat instead of getting wadded up in my hand. And with my right hand so near the spindle, I can flick it every 5 or so seconds and keep it moving. This gives me good control over the speed of the twist. Keeping control of the spindle will take some learning, though. I lost track of the number of times I accidentally undid the half hitch around the top of the stick and dropped the whole thing.

I'm thinking I don't have the notch in the top of the twig carved correctly, which is why the yarn is coming undone. And I'm also a little worried about the fact that this spindle whorl is made of lead. Lead poisoning is bad. To fix both of these issues, I've ordered a pewter reproduction Medieval spindle from the Woolery, here: http://www.woolery.com/ . It looks very similar to my actual artifact. We'll see how it works when it gets here.

Anyway, I found that the stick I was using for a distaff was also kind of poky, a little rough, and slightly curved in a way that made it harder to feed fiber from one side. So I hunted around for a 'real' distaff. I only found them for sale at Dragonfly Farms, and they were a little out of my price range right now. I thought for a bit...then went out to JoAnne's and bought a two piece wooden flag pole and a small step stool. My husband drilled a hole in the stool. I wound the wool roving around the top of the flag pole, and tied it down with a lucet cord I had lying around.

So far, this is working. When all three pieces are together, I have a self supporting distaff for when I'm sitting in a chair. And I can unscrew just the top half to tuck under my arm when I want to spin while walking around. I think I'm going to cut about 6 inches off the bottom pole though, as I'm feeling some arm strain reaching up so high to draft out the fibers.

I'm having great fun trying to puzzle this out. Here's to experimental archeology!


  1. Sounds like you have a lot of interesting experiments going on.

  2. Thanks! I'm having a blast trying to figure this out.