First, though, the basics:
- My goal is to produce thin wool socks that I can wear in the office. So: not slippers, "house socks", boot socks, or hiking socks. My aim is 14-20WPI, with the higher end for dress socks and the lower for "casual" socks. I measure by taking a photo of several strands draped over a measuring tape, so I'm essentially measuring yarn diameter when the yarn is completely relaxed.
- I want the socks to last longer than 2 years without having to darn them, with 2 days/wk wear 8 months of the year, and 1 laundry cycle/wk (laundry = machine wash in a front-loader, air dried). I'm trying to see what it takes to get this without adding nylon, but if it turns out I cannot achieve it, then so be it. So far, I have not been successful in producing 100% wool socks that clear this hurdle. When I do become successful, you'll be the first to hear about it!
- I spin on a wheel, not a spindle, so I can't give advice on the latter. I also spin exclusively 3- and 4-ply sock yarn. Never 2-ply. If I were able to spin higher plies, I would. I find I get more consistent and even yarn this way, and I find it also "mixes up" colours better. Also I like the feel of a multi-ply yarn better.
- I use commercially-prepped combed tops (I suspect mostly from John Arbon, World of Wool, and Louet, via several independent resellers / dyers). I sometimes use locally-sourced pin-drafted (carded) rovings from small local mills. I currently do not have the time or resources to comb/card/blend raw fleece.This limits the blends I can try.
- In my experience, yarn diameter is the single most important determinant of handspun sock longevity. It matters less how you ply, or how much twist you use, or what breed you use. If you make thicker socks, they will last longer.
- very important: knit at a tight gauge. It is crucial to do this. Handspun socks require a tighter gauge than millspun yarns with nylon. The sock should feel almost stiff. You need to be knitting at upwards of 9 st/in for fingering weight yarns. My handspun is denser than millspun; I use needles at least one, sometimes two sizes smaller than I'd normally consider for millspun yarns.
- I think that fibers in the 25-30 micron range are too fine for me. In my experience socks made with these fibers wear too quickly, no matter how I spin and ply them. Yeah, I know there are lots of folks who swear you can use merino, cashmere, angora, etc etc as a home spinner, and get great socks...but I haven't seen their socks to see how thick they are compared to what I'm trying to achieve, nor have I got any good data on how hard/long/frequently their socks get worn. All I can do is go by my own experience, which is that the finer fiber I've used doesn't last me long enough when spun to 14-20 wpi.
- Southdown is my favourite fiber for casual socks; I just love its bounce and elasticity. It withstands twists of 20TPI and still gives lovely yarn. However I have not been able to get long-lasting socks out of it. I'm coming to the conclusion that I need to reinforce with nylon when I use this fiber, to get the longevity I want.
- Dorset, Suffolk, and Cheviot are coarser and less elastic. I've not had these socks long enough to wear them out, so I can't tell you how these compare to Southdown quite yet. I've found that I can't spin these breeds as hard - max 16 tpi in the ply for Cheviot and Dorset, and closer to 12 for Suffolk, before I end up with harsh "string".
- BFL is nice, but too fine for me "pure", at less than 30 microns. Luckily, it's commonly available in a "superwash with nylon" blend, which makes a really nice dress sock that's hard wearing, for those who just want to spin something that lasts without worrying overly about twist and plying style. Of course, there's also merino/nylon blends easily available, but loyal readers know how I feel about merino. 'nough said.
- Romney and Leicester are longwools that are coarser than BFL. I'm doing "wear tests" on a 100% local Romney pair right now, and so far they are proving very tough, surviving a fall backpacking trip in the Smokey Mountains with no wear that I can see!
**update Sept 2016**
After some serious wear testing this summer, using hiking boots and handspun socks worn for days at a time, I've come to the conclusion that southdown from the UK is not good enough for socks for me. A local Romney is much, much better. Presumably this stuff is >30micron, because it's from local hobby farms where the sheep are not bred for their fiber. So far, the local Romney is the most likely candidate to hit my longevity goal.
Another update, I've decided that Finn is a useless wool for socks, it felts basically instantly. Unless you want slippers, I don't recommend it for socks.
2. Sock Fiber Review 2: I spin up some longwool breeds: Border Leicester and Blue Faced Leicester or "BFL". The former is a carded prep (from a local source) and the latter, superwash commercially combed top. I come to the conclusion that a combed prep is preferable (unless you like really fuzzy socks), and that a straight 3 or 4 ply is better than a cable-ply; the former gives more spring to the yarn which is otherwise not elastic at all. The carded prep yarn is very, very fuzzy, while the combed superwash is smooth and shiny - excellent dress-sock material.
3. Sock Fiber Review 3: I try some "dual-purpose" sheep: the north american Polypay breed and an Exmoor Blueface cross from the UK. Both breeds give very springy yarn, with the former being very fine and soft (and thus not suitable for socks, IMO) and the latter being close to Dorset but somewhat smoother (less hairy yarn), excellent for socks.
4. Sock Fiber Review 4: I give a local longwool - Romney - a try, and some Jacob, which is a heritage breed. The Romney is a carded prep from a local mill, it feels very strong. The Jacob - in a very nice natural "black" - is dry and very poofy.
5. Where've I Been : on holidays! Testing handspun socks! A local Romney is the best I've come across.
6. Sock Fiber Diaster : in which I ruin a nice pair of Finn/nylon socks by washing them in the machine.