We all do it – buy beautiful fleece for a project because of its colour/tactile characteristics/look etc. We might even have a project in mind, and want to get right down to it. We get our fleece home, start spinning or felting it and find that it’s not really what we wanted for that project after all, or that it doesn’t work with the technique we want to use.
There is only one answer for this – you must match your fibre to its end use before you start your project! If your fibre doesn’t match your end use, you will never be satisfied with the finished work. After sampling, you will, of course, be able to either adjust your project or send the wool to your ‘later’ stash!
So how do we go about making sure the project matches your original vision? The answer lies in buying the correct fibre for the project, and then sampling to make sure that it will work the way you expect.
I know a lovely old lady who was repeatedly puzzled about the way her knitting never turned out the way she had intended. Indeed, her garments were always too big, too small or strangely distorted.
Part of the problem was that she was using yarns that were very different from those recommended in the pattern (she wasn’t a spinner), but I got to the bottom of the problem with one question:
“Do you sample?”
“Oh, goodness no, I haven’t got time for that nonsense!”
It’s all quite logical, really. For example, for a really fine knitted or felted scarf you will need a very fine Merino fleece (19 microns or less), whereas for a felt hat you would probably want something a bit ‘meatier’, say a strong Merino, Corriedale, or even Romney, depending on the look you want.
If you are felting, sage advice tells us to keep right away from any Down breeds such as Perendale, Suffolk, Southdown. These are wonderful spinning breeds but do not make lasting felt; in fact some of them don’t felt properly at all! Good reason to buy your fleeces for felting from reputable sources.
No type of wool that has been superwash treated will felt, as it has been altered to prevent felting during washing. And if your generous neighbour has given you a fleece and doesn’t really know what it is, sampling will help you decide whether it’s more useful for making craft items or compost (as is often the case).
Don’t be tempted to miss out the sampling step – it’s the only way to find out what you need to know about your fibre and technique. Keep a sample book to refer to – it will help you with project ideas and it’s a great resource to share with fellow crafters. I put samples mounted on card into a clear book and keep records of all the details of each sample.
Click here to see a slideshow of my sampling process
Sampling for spinning
Make sure you use all the techniques available to you and make several samples. Try to match the twist in your finished yarn to the crimps in the fibre. If you’re spinning sliver, pull several strands and look at them under magnification.
- Count the crimps per inch (CPI) in each fibre and average them. This will give you the number of twists per inch (TPI) that you will need to make your final yarn the perfect match to the fibre. You will have to add more twist than CPI (because plying partly untwists your singles).
- Calculate the TPI for the singles, then for plying
- Anne Field’s Spinning Wool: Beyond the Basics (Shoal Bay Press, 1995) is an invaluable resource for spinners. Alongside a wonderful breadth of information about fleece, preparation and matching fleece to project, it gives detailed instructions on how to match spin and ply to twist.Make a few samples using different spinning styles; e.g. short backward draw, long backward draw (my favourite), spinning on a core etc.
Once you have your finished, washed, pressed square you can check:
- Does the sample look as you expected?
- Is your spinning technique up to the project you envisaged?
- Is there another technique you should explore before going ahead?
Pat Old once said to me that ‘feltmaking is a craft with more than the usual amount of disasters’. The only way to minimize the disasters and make the most of your fibre is to sample, sample, sample.
Every different fleece has its different characteristics; every batch of sliver will reflect the characteristics of the fleeces used to produce it. When the finished size of the piece is critical, it’s essential to thoroughly test for each and every project.
Basic Felting Tests
The rough ‘will it felt?’ test:
Take half a handful of fibre, then compact and form into a small ball by rolling in the palms of your hands.
- Dip the ball into hot water with your soap or detergent of choice (I always use Lux flakes)
- Squeeze most of the suds out, leaving enough to nicely lubricate the wool
- Begin lightly rolling the wool between your palms. Depending on the fleece, it can be very soft to start with
- Continue to roll, increasing the pressure, until you have a nice tight little felt ball. Keep dipping in hot suds to keep it lubricated. If the ball doesn’t tighten up until it’s quite hard, it’s unlikely the wool will felt properly.
- Rinse the ball thoroughly in hot and then cold water
- Inspect that final product. Is it hairy? Your finished felt will likely be hairy, and may not felt well. Is it smooth, compact and hard? Then your wool will felt well.
- Once you are happy that your wool will indeed felt, then move on to making a shrinkage sample
- Save up your sample balls to make pins, earrings and necklaces. There are many ways to embellish them and they make terrific gifts!
Felt will shrink most along the length of the fibres; if you want to make felt that shrinks equally, you will need to lay even numbers of layers of fibres in opposite directions. If you use odd-numbered layers, make sure you mark your sample in some way so that you know which edge is which.
- Take a piece of netting, plastic or whatever you usually use to make your felt
- Lay out a sample at least 20cm square in the thickness you want for your final project. Draw around the sample on a plastic square with permanent marker and put to one side. You will use this to check your progress.
- Lay a covering over your sample
- Felt the sample using your usual technique, using the template you made to check that it is shrinking. Usually the sample will get bigger as it absorbs water and then start to shrink as you work it.
- When it’s holding together, start to full the sample using your usual techniques
- When completely fulled, rinse out your sample in hot, then cold water; dry and finish in the usual way. Check your sample against the original template.
- Measure the difference and convert to a percentage. This is how much shrinkage you can expect overall in your finished felt. You can then calculate the size of your felt pieces accurately. Many finer wools will shrink around 50% when properly fulled!
Sampling for shrinkage (Nuno-felt)
You can combine fabric/fibre compatibility with sampling for shrinkage in nuno-felt. If you have problems with nuno-felt, often it's not the wool's ability to felt that is the problem - it's the combination of wool, a particular fabric and technique. Not all wools are equal - some will require different treatment from others. Technique is very important here – persuading the little fibres to mesh with the fabric can be tricky and some wools will need more help than others.
- Cut at least a 20cm square of your chosen fabric – if you are using heavier fabric, use a larger square, but make it in increments of 10cm – it will make your final calculations easier.
- Cover the edges and lay out your sample in the pattern you intend to use for your finished work. This is important if you are using a multi-directional pattern as the fibres will shrink up in different directions, which makes shrinkage unpredictable.
- Again, using a square of plastic, make a template drawing around your sample with a permanent marker and put it to one side for reference
- Using your usual techniques, wet out your sample and work it to a soft felted stage
- Full the sample completely, rinse with hot then very cold water, dry and finish as usual (I steam or damp press at this stage to give a smooth, even finish)
- Use your template to determine shrinkage as above for wool felt