Saturday, February 14, 2009

SpinJournal #12: Pick a Card

Today is the Big Day! I'm going to pick those fleeces and get them whipped into something closer to spinning shape than scoured fleece in laundry bags.

I got my picking station set up, and started on the Romney/Coopworth hogget I bought last June. It's a good fleece to start with: lovely-soft, but full of VM (vegetative matter--hay, sticks, dead lady bugs) and second-cuts. I started to comb the fleece, but that's taking forever, and the lock structure is not as intact as I would like for combing. The fleece has been sitting in the studio since last June, and it's time to either spin it or get rid of it.

I discovered pretty quickly that the advice Paula Simmons gives in her book, The Handspinner's Guide to Selling, is accurate: don't let the picker try to take too big a bite. A big chunk of fleece only jams the picker. As the fleece was still pretty much in bunches of locks, I grabbed handfuls and pulled them apart a little bit to keep entire blocks of fleece from being pulled into the picker. The perfect technique seems to be to let the teeth at the closest edge of the rocker skim over the unpicked fleece, pulling a little bit of the fleece down onto the teeth in the cradle. The rocker then moves the fleece across the teeth of the cradle, and off into a basket. It took a few minutes to get the rhythm down (it's more just "push," rather than "push-pull"), and then dark brown clouds of wool began to fall into the waiting basket. Someone with experience can (supposedly) pick 6 to 10 pounds of fiber an hour; I'm not nearly that fast, but I can at least operate the picker safely and efficiently.

Picking was just the first step. Once the basket was filled, I had to card the fiber. Carding makes a nice break from picking. Too much of one task leads to inattention; inattention leads to disaster! Carding the picked fleece led to the next big discovery--why the drum carder came with clamps. My drum carder--a Strauch's Finest--is big, heavy, and doesn't move very much when I card, especially as I'm pretty gentle. As a result, I never put the clamps on it to clamp it down; it sat on the chest of drawers and everything was copacetic. The clamps sat in their little plastic bag in the drawer of drum carding tools until today. I'm no longer working with little teased open locks, or the bits pulled from my English combs, and it became evident pretty quickly that the fastest, most efficient way to card the picked wool was to turn the crank on the drum carder with one hand, while feeding handfuls of the picked fiber with the other. Great! Then the drum carder began to slide around a bit. Not Great! Everything ground to a halt while I installed the clamps and clamped the drum carder down to the shelf. When I started carding again, the drum carder was rock solid, and I started turning out batts of chocolate brown goodness.

After an entire day of picking, carding, and breaks at the computer, I finished! Where I had a laundry basket full of fleece, I have a storage bin (plus!) of dark brown batts. I need to card them all once again, both to thoroughly blend the color and to remove more of the VM, but it's been a good day's work!

Friday, February 13, 2009

SpinJournal #11: Pickin' N Grinnin'

Having the proper tools makes life so much easier. Yes, it's possible to do nearly everything with fewer tools or lower technology, but it almost always takes longer, and is more frustrating than the same task with modern tools and technology. A cake can be baked in a dutch oven over a wood fire, but isn't it easier to mix it with the KitchenAid and bake it in the self-cleaning oven?

Fiber-related tasks are no different. I discovered this several years ago, when I was using a set of handcards to make rolags for spinning. I new I had to make a lot of them, and I had a lot of fleece, so I put an audiobook on, sat down, and handcarded rolags. Three hours later, I had a basket full of beautiful gray rolags, and no feeling in my hands. I ordered a drum carder the following day.

Two weeks ago, the Guild had their annual "Big Carding Day." We do a lot of demos and public outreach that includes teaching people to spin on a CD spindle, so we need carded fiber for teaching. Everyone that owns a drum carder brings it, and we spend the day carding up lots of donated fleece. I took my big drum carder and a couple bags of fleece to contribute to the effort. The fleece was, quite frankly, not in the best shape. It was scoured by an outside source, and the lock structure is nearly gone, so it's not suitable for combing. I set up my carder and my teasing pad, and produced several pretty nice batts out of this fleece before I finally wore a hole in my thumb from teasing open the locks before throwing them onto the drum carder tray. Obviously, teasing open the locks for 5 laundry bags of fleece wasn't going to be possible. I needed a better way.

A few days after Carding Day, someone on the SpinList posted a link to a beautiful bench picker. I've always resisted the idea of getting a cradle picker, mostly because it's a frightening piece of equipment. Six hundred steel points, all waiting for me to stop paying attention so they can seriously hurt me. But a bench picker is a different animal. I e-mail the link to Stephen, and got a quick reply: Where would you put a bench picker nearly the size of a floor loom? Oh. I hadn't thought of that--the studio is only 120 square feet, and the only way I could fit a picker the size of the loom is to get rid of the loom. So much for a picker.

Suddenly, another message popped up: "Doesn't your guild have a picker you could rent?" Well let me quote Homer and say, "Doh!" I had completely forgotten--the Guild did own a picker that members could borrow. A flurry of e-mails over the next couple of days took care of the arrangements, Stephen picked it up, and the Guild's Triple Picker was sitting in my studio.

On the floor.

Where it couldn't be used.

Fortunately, the picker is a lot smaller than the bench picker, so I just needed to rearrange the studio a little bit. The swift and ball-winder that were under the window moved to my worktable. The drum carder moved from its station at one end of the studio to the shelf under the window. The picker went on top of the chest of drawers, in the spot where the drum carder used to be. Once I switched the position of the table clamp on the picker, and found a big basket for the picked fleece, I was ready to go.