Maker Mondays – B and W Woolery

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Happy Monday, and Happy Thanksgiving to those in Canada.   Today we have a very educational version of Maker Mondays, brought to you by Rachel of B and W Woolery of Hoyt, New Brunswick.  Rachel is a hand-spinner, employing traditional methods to turn raw fleece into fibre and hand-spun yarns with tremendous results.

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Please begin by giving us a brief intro and bio about yourself.

Hello, My name is Rachel and I’m a fiber addict. It’s been 5 moments since I’ve touched fiber… I currently have 0 rooms in my house that don’t currently have some sort of fiber related thing floating around.

I’m 26, married to a wonderful husband whose support of my fiber can be bought through periodically making him things (sweaters, hats, etc). I have one 4 year old son, Cadan and another little boy due in early December. I’m the owner of B&W Woolery and have recently started our own fiber farm specializing in high quality fiber alpacas, Brigadoon Fiber Farms located in Hoyt, New Brunswick. I’ve always been interested in history and looooved Laura Ingalls and Little House on the Prairie. Since a young age, I have been interested in fiber arts, sewing and anything that a pioneer might have known. I learned to spin at 10, my grandmother taught me to knit at a young age – perhaps 6-8? My own mother taught me to sew from the time I was able to hold a needle and thread. Since having children and getting married, knowing where things were coming from and what I was putting in and on my son’s body became a big thing for me. Not being able to find yarn for certain projects, I found a wheel, some fiber and started again. I fell in love right away all over again. The rest is history. I’ve had my shop since 2012 and now we’re on our dream farm.

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Congratulations! How exciting to have your own farm and fibre animals. Tell us more about this experience. /strong>

We’re very excited. It’s been a dream of mine for some time now. My husband was quite a bit more hesitant, but has fallen in love with the animal side of things and probably knows as much, if not more about them than I do! I certainly take care of the fiber side, while he knows fencing, husbandry, barn requirements and helps in the pasture with them. We have 3 alpaca, Slate – light fawn, Mira – Black and White, and Aleeka – caramel brown. Mira and Aleeka are bred and we’re expecting Cria in the summer of 2016. We’re also bringing in 3 alpaca from a friends farm in Ontario to bring in some new bloodlines and some amazing fiber potential. I have had some trouble finding the breeds of sheep in the quality that I want for our farm. We’re looking at a few beautiful Romney, Polwarth and Ramboullet lambs from Ontario for next summer. We’re currently renovating a space for a fiber and alpaca shop where I’ll be offering lessons in weaving, knitting, felting and more. I’m excited for the future of both our farm, my shop and this ancient craft!

Many people believe that a sheep is a sheep is a sheep.  You focus on breed specific fibres which ensures the continuation and preservation of breeds.  Apart from the colour of the fleece, what differences would we notice? Do you have a particular favorite?

A great question and one I could chat about all day! Sheep are very different from one another. Just like horses, cows, dogs and cats. A husky is very different from a Pomeranian! Sheep hail from different areas of the world and have been breed over the centuries for various purposes. Some are used for meat, some milk and some fleece. Those that are breed for milk and meat have a poorer quality fleece as their energy is put into producing those products. Fleece sheep, although they could be consumed, have their energy going into creating great fiber.

Different breeds of sheep within the fiber category have different types of fiber. Some is rougher and better suited for rugs, some – like Ramboulette, Polwarth and Merino are perfect for baby items and next to the skin wear. I certainly have breed favorites – I really enjoy Romney fleece. It’s a middle of the line softness and can be used for sweaters, socks, hats and mitts. With a 4 year old boy and a husband, hard wearing – yet wearable items are really important.

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There is a certain cost differential between buying a hand-spun yarn to a craft store brand.  There is good reason though, as not only is your end product natural, high-quality and beautiful, but your process from start to finish is very labour-intensive.  Can you take us on a quick tour of the process from farm to yarn.

It’s certainly a learning curve and even I still buy craft store yarn for certain projects! It’s not that one is ‘better’ than the other, I think yarn should be chosen for it’s appropriateness of a project. If you’re making hats for the homeless or a NICU for preemie babies, acrylic is the best as it’s low cost to make lots of them and can be washed without specific washing instructions.
My yarn takes a long time to make, depending on how you look at it. Really, first the animal has to go a full year on good pasture, good hay, good minerals and lots of cleaning the barn. Most sheep and alpaca are shorn (haircut) once a year. From this, depending on the breed and the individual animal, you can get 1-10lbs of good fiber. Our alpaca average about 3lbs of wonderful blanket fiber (blanket is the fiber from the sides and back of the animal which is generally the longest and best fiber.) After shearing day, the fiber is collected and I then skirt each fleece. This involves laying it out on a huge table and removing the really dirty bits, the ‘second cuts’ (little bits of fiber that are created when the clippers pass over the fleece again, about .25″ long), any hairy or lesser quality bits. The best of the fiber is then washed. Wool needs a different process than alpaca. I generally separate a fleece, depending on the weight into a few large landry bags. I then fill my bathtub with hot, hot water and hand made wool wash. I soak it for 15-20 minutes, this first wash is truly gross. All the mud, lanolin, urine, and anything else in their fleece comes loose with this wash. ew. I drain the fleece and remove the icky water and depending on the fleece may have another soap wash 1-2 more times. After that, it’s consecutive hot baths until the water runs clear. The fleece can’t be swished around or handled too much as it WILL felt into a giant ball of sadness.
Alpaca is a little easier as they tend not to be as dirty. They also don’t have lanolin in their fiber so are not greasy like some wool. Similar to the wool, it receives a series of hot water and soap baths.
Once bathes are completed, the fiber has to dry – I try and use the natural light as much as possible. It dries much quicker and the natural UV will kill any bacteria that the soap and scalding water didn’t.
Once the fiber is dry, I usually label it and put it away for future use. To use a fleece, there are a few ways to process it into yarn. Some is wonderful to spin right from the clean fleece. A little fluffing with my hands and away we go! Some requires more work and hand carders or special combs are used to card the fiber into a usable fluff. Often, I’ll mix fleece with add ins like silk, colored fibers or other wool and alpaca. This is all done by hand with carders.
When the fiber is prepared, it takes me approximately 2 hours to spin a worsted weight 2 ply on my spinning wheel. First I spin a single, then ply it together to create the final yarn and yardage. For a 4oz 100y skein, I have to spin 200 yards of a single, then ply it upon itself. Thinner yarn take longer as there is more yardage that I’m spinning.
Another bath happens to set the twist and to remove any oils from my hands. If the yarn will be dyed, it also happens at this stage. It’s then hung, outside, again to dry and then measured and labeled.
Due to the nature of the work, it’s difficult to tell how long one skein of yarn takes as so much prep work all year goes into being able to sit down in the evening and spin.

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You use traditional methods of spinning.  Can you tell us a bit about your process and how you learned this age-old method.

I was taught at a young age (10) when I was volunteering at the Cole Harbour Heritage Farm in Cole Harbour, Dartmouth, NS. One of the residents of the farm was giving demonstrations. When I expressed an interest, she was only too happy to teach me. Although I knew how, i didn’t do much for some time. Until I had my son and was married, I picked it back up again to create items for my family. My husband thought I had too much yarn (WHAT???) so I started selling a few skeins here and there. As a stay at home mom it keeps me busy and ensures I have something for me – that I can share with my son, and #2 due in early December. I prefer the natural colors and let the fiber decide what it wants to be. Some spins really thin and some is fat and chunky. When I’m looking for new yarn to make, I dive into my stash and feel fleece rather than pick something specific. I wander around in the fiber until something seems right. I’ll grab it and decide if I want regular yarn or art yarn. Sometimes I bring bags out and sit on the floor of my living room. My son LOVES to help me play with fiber and decide what we’re going to do. Sometimes the fiber is dyed and blended together, sometimes it’s left natural. Sitting on the floor with my kids playing with fiber is wonderful. It shows them the creative process and he really loves helping pick the colors and textures.

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How has spinning changed over time, and what effect has this had on the yarns that we are accustomed to purchasing in yarn stores.

Spinning, although it’s a slow and gradual change, has seen things evolve. Originally spinning was done with a drop spindle and these have been found in historical sites including vikings – any society that had woven cloth had access to spinning. Inventions were made, but with each new process, the older forms didn’t really die. Drop spindles are still used, large great wheels with spindles (think sleeping beauty) are still used and with the advent of the industrial revolution and mechanized mill processed fiber, hand processing fiber still has a place. Although it takes longer and might seem antiquated, there is a special feeling of taking fiber off an animal that you’ve watched grow for a year, clean and hand process and spin it. I spin on a vintage Ashford traditional wheel that I purchased second hand.
The yarn found in stores is mostly mass produced. There are some artists an companies now offering eco friendly, natural fiber options. Store bought yarn is great for beginners, testing a pattern, learning a new stitch, or making something for that special someone you just know won’t follow your carefully prepared washing instructions! We will also have some fiber sent to a local small mill to have processed as I can’t hope to spin all of it, and I’d like to be able to weave with it – I certainly use more yarn that I’m able to produce on my own.

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Being a hand-maker yourself, do you have a hand-made treasure that you most treasure? 

Much of my family is crafty. My mother made my husband and I a wedding quilt, my grandfather made the cherry bassinet I slept in as a new born. My father made my first ‘big kid bed’ and my husband has crafted me wooden jewelry boxes and keepsakes. I think my most treasured of  my hand made items is my two boys. Sharing my passion and this lifestyle, I really couldn’t ask for more! Other than the corny mom answer, I have a small cross stitched locket that my great grandmother passed on to me that her mother made. I treasure all the hand made items we have, each is special for a different reason.

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer all of these questions, Rachel. I have loved reading about the process from start to finish, and it was very educational, too.

Be sure to check out Rachel’s shop, BWwoolery on etsy.

(Written by Carol of String Me Along and This Borrowed Moment on Etsy.)