Fleece Challenge

Fleece Challenge

Back at the beginning of the Century, when I was a fairly new member of the Dorset Guild of Weavers Spinners & Dyers, and an enthusiastic entrant for challenges, the Association of Guilds of Weavers Spinners & Dyers (referred to by older members as “National”) via it’s quarterly magazine “The Journal” decided to run a Rare Breed Challenge.

National would provide a quantity of raw (unprocessed) fleece to any member of a Guild who entered with the intention that the member would process the fleece and send in a report for publication in the Journal. I thought that I should have a go.

The piece of fleece that arrived in October 2001 weighed 5¼  oz (145 gr.) before washing.  The staple was 4” long with a pronounced crimp, and it was quite oily. 


I placed the whole sample in my “patent fleece washer” (about which more sometime in the future) and left it to soak in plain rainwater for two days. The garden benefitted from the mucky water afterwards.
The fleece was drained but not dried, and then given two further long soaks in rainwater and Fairy liquid. A final overnight soak in rainwater and Woolite was followed by two rinses in rainwater (it must have been a wet autumn). The fleece was drained again and then spread out on a rack in the airing cupboard to finish drying.

Raw Fleece, as it arrived
Washed Fleece

I was surprised to find that almost all of the lanoline had been removed from the fleece, despite the fact that the rainwater had not been heated at any time. However, as this was the first time that I had washed fleece, I should possibly have expected this result. Because the fleece was so dry, I added a smidgin of Johnson’s Baby Oil as I carded it. At least to begin with – until I got fed up with the smell and added some lavender oil.

I decided to make a shawl or stole, because the fibres felt a little too scratchy for a scarf or anything which would be close to the skin. I did not think that there would be sufficient yarn to make a garment to be worn on top of other clothes. I felt that a fine yarn to make into a lacy article would be best – it would go further than a thicker yarn and, with care, be “light and airy”.

I wanted to spin much more finely than I have done in the past and had read somewhere that thin rolags would be better for fine spinning. So when carding, I separated each bat into two layers (one from one carder and one from the other) and formed the rolags round a knitting needle to make long thin rolags.

Carding the fleece.
“Pencil” Rolags

I had also heard that it would be easier to spin finely if I padded out my bobbins. (You can tell that I’m mainly self taught from watching others spin or reading books, as I don’t know the mechanics behind these theories – but I’m was learning.) I used foam pipe insulation around the spindle of my bobbins and this worked very well.

It appeared to be quite easy to spin finely, at least for the first two bobbins. After that I was using the rolags from the bottom of the pile. They had suffered from compression and were more difficult to spin without too many slubs appearing. I plied the first two bobbins and took off the resulting two-ply yarn onto my niddy noddy. This is a very handy size. It was made for me by my brother-in-law and each full round measures a yard. I was therefore easily able to calculate that the length of my first skein was 118 yards. I set the ply by dipping the skein in cold (tap) water and Fairy liquid.

When it had dried I found that, despite having been spun semi-worsted, the yarn was quite fluffy. I felt that this would result in a blurring of most pattern stitches and decided therefore to try Broomstick crochet. I made a sample (a very rare occurrence for me) and found that, if I combined Broomstick with Tunisian crochet, I could make quite an attractive triangular shawl.

In case you are not conversant with Tunisian Crochet, let me give you a brief lesson. The hook used for these stitches is crossed between a knitting needle and a standard crochet hook – i.e. a knitting needle with a hook at the opposite end to the knob. (It is also possible to get a double (hooked) ended Tunisian hook for more complicated work). Each row is worked in two halves – a forward and a return row. Tunisian Simple stitch forward row is in fact unfinished Double (Single in US) Crochet. The final loop of each stitch is left on the hook so that at the end of the row you have a hook full of stitches, as in knitting. The return row is made by chaining off the stitches so that you end up with just one loop on the hook and are ready to start the next row.

According to Muriel Kent (author of Exciting Crochet – a Course in Broomstick & Tunisian Crochet) Tunisian Crochet is known as Afghan Crochet in North America and has also been called Russian Stitch. She reports that it is a very old craft, older than both knitting and ordinary crochet, and that an example had been found in an Egyptian tomb.
Broomstick crochet (or Witchcraft Lace!) is thought to have originated in North America, the principle being to make loops of a regular size by placing them onto a Broomstick – or very thick knitting needle – and to remove them in regular groups with double (single) crochet.

As I had not yet spun up all the prepared fleece, I had no idea how much yarn I would have in total. Also as time was now getting on, I thought I had better start on the shawl straight away, rather than wait until I had completed the spinning and plying. The safest way to cope with not knowing how much yarn I would finish up with was to start at the point and to increase at either end of the rows as I went along. Then, if I started to run out of yarn, I could avoid more easily ending up with an odd shape.

In the end the stitches I used were not quite those in the sample.  I have used “Tunisian Broomstick” rather than Tunisian and Broomstick.  After forming the Broomstick loops on a 20 mm Broomstick pin, I took them off in groups of six using a 4½ mm Tunisian crochet hook.  Instead of finishing each double crochet in the usual way, I left the last loop on the hook, Tunisian fashion, and then chained them all off. The next row was Tunisian treble (double treble?) stitch, and the increase was carried out at each end of this row – doubling the 12 stitches above the first and last “fan” of Broomstick stitches. This was done by passing he hook through the stitch on the previous row for one stitch, and then between that stitch and the next on the previous row for the new stitch, six times, increasing the stitches on the hook by twelve in total. These three rows form the pattern and give a right angled triangle.

Starting the Shawl
Tunisian Broomstick

I did not get the shawl finished before I had to send in the report, so there was no photo of it, but I note that I did enter it in our Guild Special Exhibition in 2002 which formed part of the Dorset Arts & Crafts Exhibition that year.

14 thoughts on “Fleece Challenge

    1. Thanks Ruth. I do remember that I enjoyed doing it at the time. I was a real spinning enthusiast then, as well as an avid crocheter – I don’t seem to have time now.

  1. That was a big job to take on. The pattern you created is very pretty and lacy. I hope you kept a copy of your work appearing in the Journal. Did you ever use that kind of wool again?

    1. It didn’t seem like a big job at the time though. I really like Tunisian crochet I find it more versatile than the traditional stitches. My sister started me off after she had had a workshop at an earlier Guild meeting. Then they were using course woollen yarn on a comparatively thin hook and making oven gloves.
      I never came across Norfolk Horn wool again. I hope that the breed is still going on though.

  2. Nicely done! I’ve never washed fleece in cold water before, so it was interesting to find the lanolin did come out all the same. This might save me some energy bills in the future 🙂

    As for your shawl, that pattern is lovely. I’ve a book on spinning to create certain projects and remember the author claiming that 3-ply yarns gave better lace stitch definition that 2-ply yarns, so I’m wondering if you’ve ever tested this. Your stitches look fantastic in any case!

    1. Thanks Leonor. The only 3 ply spinning I have done was for a sort of double knit (not sure what you call it over there) weight. I was spinning blended superwash merino tops which were all sorts of greens/turquoises/dark blues. To keep the various colours of the resulting yarns in “blocks” I did Navaho ply, sometimes called chain plying. I do not like the “barber pole” effect of standard plying different colours together. The Navaho plying also had the advantage of being quicker in that I did not have to wait until I had spun 3 bobbins worth of tops before I could ply and use the yarn. It was used to make a Tunisian crochet sampler jacket – it had squares of different stiches up the fronts and the back.

  3. That really was a fascinating read, so detailed and lovely to the whole process from start to finish. Like Leonor, I was interested to hear how well the cold water soaks worked to remove the lanolin. I’m looking forward to hearing more about your patent fleece washer in the future too, it sounds exciting.

    I love the lacy effect you achieved with the Tunisian crochet, I’ve not heard about this before. I do enjoy regular crochet, but the effect you created is beautiful.

    1. Thank you for your kind comments.
      I have just realised that it is likely that what took the lanolin out was the fairy liquid and that it would do it regardless of the heat of the water. I’m only saying that because I had to try to dress a synthetic wig a week ago setting straight tentacle-like lengths to stand away from the crown. I tried something called “Ultra Free Mud” which my hairdresser had given me for hair styling. I had not used it on my hair as I didn’t like the feel of if, but I tried it on the wig. It didn’t work properly and I had to ask my hairdresser how to get it out of the wig. She said “Fairy Liquid” – and it worked. So, as I say, it was probably that that took the lanolin out of the fleece.

  4. That was quite a commitment to work through from raw fleece to finished shawl. The result is really beautiful and I do hope you have saved your pattern. Up until now I associated Tunisian Crochet with a very firm (practically impermeable) fabric so it’s really good to be able to put aside that perception. It must have been so satisfying to have the before and after photos of the fleece (as you said great for the garden too). A thoroughly enjoyable read. thank you so much!

    1. Thanks Helen.
      With something like a shawl or scarf, I tend to make the pattern up as I go along. I have been crocheting for so long now that I can usually “read” a finished piece and work out the pattern – not something I can do with knitting which is a craft that I have never managed to master.
      If you use a thick hook and a thin yarn you can achieve a lacy effect.

  5. That was a great read. A wonderful project, and so well done. The colour change of the fleece when it was washed is stunning. Thank you for the education.

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