Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Sock Fiber Review - 2

I am trying to make at least half of the socks I knit using my own handspun. This forces me to practise spinning-for-socks, and also means I get to experiment with a few different breeds.

Last time, I reviewed 2 different "downs" breeds, which are really famous for sock fiber: I tried Southdown and Dorset. Other "downs" breeds include:
  • Oxford Down
  • Hampshire (Down)
  • Suffolk
  • Shropshire
Downs wool is short-stapled (doesn't grow very long) and very curly. The sheep originate in the hills of southern England and have been used to produce quite a few different "crossbreeds". Some of these breeds are quite common in North America - they are "meat" sheep. Here in Canada, you might find fiber from (Rideau) Arcott and Polypay breeds, which are relatively new and have downs-type wool. I know the Custom Woolen Mills sells fiber from these sheep.

Anyways, for this set of sock fiber trials, I spun up some "long" wools. This type of wool is quite different from the downs breeds, it isn't nearly as springy and so doesn't produce an elastic yarn. It is much shinier than downs wool. Longwool-type breeds include:
  • Border Leicester
  • Wensleydale
  • Teeswater
  • Romney

Border Leicester

[Border Leicester sheep. Love the ears!]

This breed is originally from Northumberland in northern England. It's also classified as a dual purpose sheep (meat/fiber).  The fiber is available in either white, or brown - the latter especially if you buy it from smaller outfits. The batch I purchased was from a local Gulf Island farm, and was commercially carded (not combed) - kind of unusual for a longwool (which one would expect to find combed). The prep wasn't very good - quite "nebby" (lots of little knots, or pills, in it) - but despite this I found it much easier to spin that the downs breeds. I managed a 4-ply (cable-plied). The yarn is very fluffy and not elastic at all. Other longwools I have spun exhibit a mohair-like "halo", even when spun worsted, but in this case I think the fuzziness was enhanced by the fact that the wool was carded (not combed). I stuck to a plain 2x2 rib in order to keep the sock as elastic as possible, and resulting socks are very fuzzy, not very stretchy or bouncy, and feel more like slippers than socks. Bottom line: I'm sure they'll wear like iron, but I'm not in love with the lack of elasticity I'm getting. Not a repeater for me, for socks, anyways. 

 [ border leicester socks ]

Blue-Faced Leicester ("BFL")

[BFL sheep with classic "roman" nose]

This is a breed that is becoming more popular in the yarn shops. Most knitters will have heard of "merino" wool, and now the latest thing is "BFL". As the name suggests, these sheep are related to the Border Leicester breed. They look similar and their wool is also long-stapled and shiny, and is available in natural brown and white. It's becoming popular for sock blends - typically in a "superwash / nylon" blend, which is what I spun up. Thanks to the very even prep (commercial combed "tops") and the superwash treatment, it's very, very easy to draft. Spinning fine is no trouble with this stuff. It comes out slightly shiny. The yarn is softer than the downs-type yarn, and not as elastic. The fact that they've put nylon in this fiber tells me that it is not as hard-wearing as downswool. I did a straight-up 4-ply, which came out very fine, rather shiny and very smooth, thanks to the commercial prep. The yarn is not very elastic, but because I used a tight ply it is more springy than the carded Border Leicester I spun up for the review above. This makes it more pleasant to knit.

[ BFL sock yarn, 4-ply ]

 [...and the finished dress socks!]

So I think my learnings from these experiments are that for longwools, I prefer to:

1. use a combed, not carded, prep - commercially-prepped "tops" are much easier to deal with and will give a nice, smooth, shiny yarn. This seems to exclude a lot of locally-processed stuff, though, because what I've seen at local fairs appears to be carded.

2. spin straight-up 3- or 4-ply with a tight ply to give extra "boing" to the yarn. A cable-ply doesn't seem as springy...

I haven't done enough wearing of my socks yet to know if the superwash and/or nylon is a "must" on longwool socks. I can see more experiments in my future!

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