I love silk.
I love spinning it, love dyeing it, and just think it's such a wonderful fibre.
But it has it's own terminology, and that can get confusing, someone asked me about it via email recently, so I thought a summary on the blog might be helpful for other people.
First things first, what is silk?
I sell 2 kinds of silk, and they're the kind of silk you're most likely to encounter as a spinner.
All silk comes from silk worms. We're all familiar with the idea that caterpillars build a cocoon in which to turn in to a butterfly or moth. A silk worm does this by spinning out a strand of silk, similar in the way a spider spins out a web.
The best quality, shiniest silk comes from a reeled cocoon.
By Claude Valette - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14980967
This produces a single strand of continuous silk. In order for this process to occur the cocoon must be processed before the moth emerges. However, this isn't wasteful, for people who process the silk the pupae is a valuable source of protein Each stage of further processing then goes on to make use of each lesser grade of silk, usually depending on consistency of the fibre length, and fibre type. There's next to no waste, everything gets used, and as spinners we use nearly all of the different grades of silk, either as top, brick, noil, or laps.
The key exception to this, and explains their comparatively high price is silk hankies. These are a whole cocoon stretched over a frame, so they can't be processed to remove as much value from the different grades.
Tussah vs Mulberry
There are many types of moth who produce silk during their pupal stage. The most common are Tussah and Mulberry.
Which moth provides which kind starts to get complicated, but generally Mulberry Silk comes from the Bombyx types of moth. This is sometime why Mulberry silk is also called Bombyx silk. Tussah silk comes from other types of moth. However, the types we usually have available as spinners are all farmed.
So what are the differences that matter to us as spinners?
These are both silk top.
Bottom fibre in green is tussah, top in blue is mulberry.
Mulberry is shinier, and much more compact. The tussah feels slightly toothier, with a little bit more wave to the fibre.
Mulberry also has a longer, more consistent staple length.
They will both spin in a shiny silk yarn. But for maximum shine I tend to go for mulberry over tussah. For blending with wool tussah is generally a better option, as it matches most wool staple length better.
If you're a beginner, it honestly doesn't matter which kind of silk you choose to spin. A good quality Mulberry is in some ways easier than Tussah as the staple length is more consistent. However, Tussah can be slightly grippier, and easier to keep control of. There's no one correct fibre to begin with, try both!
The main thing is to keep your hands far enough apart. Remember the staple length, if you hands get too close together they will be pulling on the opposite ends of the same piece of fibre. Silk is incredibly strong, you will never draft silk with your hands too close together.
Some people advocate spinning silk from the fold with a backwards point of twist draft, and using a high twist level. Personally I spin straight from the end, using a regular short forwards draw, with relatively low twist levels (less than I would use for wool in a yarn of the same thickness). I find that gives me a yarn with maximum shine, and that's what I want from my silk! So experiment, find the way that works for you.
Unlike wool which usually only comes in 3 commercially processed forms (combed top, roving or batts), there are a huge variety of ways in which silk is processed.
The most common form of commercially dyed silk is as tops. This is a thin strip with all the original fibres aligned in parallel. It will be one of the forms of silk that is processed first, and as a result contains high quality fibres, of even consistency and quality. Both fibres in the photos above are combed top.
The form of silk that I dye most often are Silk Bricks. In essence these are a thicker piece of combed top. They are called a brick because they are bundled up in to a dense rectangular form. They're easy to dye because you can spread them out. Dyeing Mulberry Silk top with hand painting techniques is a little like wrestling eels.
Other forms of silk you'll come across
- Silk Laps
These are the waste from the processing. When the silk cocoons are carded the long fibres pass through the machines, but the shorter, clumpier fibres are left behind. They build up on the drums of the carding machine, and are then cut off in enormous sheets of textured silk fibre. You can spin them by themselves, and get a shiny textured silk yarn, but where they excel is for adding texture to blends. They also work wonderfully on the surface of felt.
These are the bits and pieces that are leftover inside the cocoon. They're lumpy and bobbly and short. They're great for adding a tweed texture to blends.
These are a whole cocoon, stretched over a frame. They look like a square handkerchief, hence the name. They are also sometimes stretched in a cap shape, which do exactly the same thing. Because they contain a fibres that are so long they can be a real battle to spin. The best way I found to spin them was mounted on a distaff, and in the same way that you would spin linen. However, they are versatile...
You can knit with unspun hankies
Photos here, More details here.
I love using them directly on the surface of a piece of felt, they form a thin spiders web over the top of the wool.
Knitty Article with more details on drafting them out, and spinning with them here.
They will give you a textured, uneven yarn. Do not try to spin these on a smooth, even thread! Another way to use the is to take a pair of scissors to them, cut them in to strips that match the staple length of you wool, and card them with other fibres.
Silk comes in various grades, particularly mulberry silk. The grade refers to the quality, both in consistency of fibre length, and the amount of straight, non-waste fibres that are present. Silk top is usually A-Grade, it's such a narrow strip of fibre that you will spot any inconsistencies. Silk Brick comes in several grades. A, B1, B2 and C are the most common.
As a spinner, do not bother with anything less than A grade. It's just an exercise in frustration. If you do have inconsistent fibre then spinning from the fold with a point of twist draft helps to keep the fibre under control.
However, what's coming in to the UK at the moment is of nowhere near the quality that it used to be. I have bricks from 6 years ago, and compared to the Silk Bricks I can buy now they're in every way superior. There seems to be a tendency for far too much seracin to be left in the fibres. Seracin is the glue that the caterpillar uses to glue the fibres together. It has to be removed before processing by boiling and use of an alkali. If it's not properly removed the machinery tends to damage the silk, and you also struggle to dye the fibre as it acts as a resist to water.
As a result I'm switching away from dyeing bricks and am moving towards dyeing silk top. This seems to be better processed and better quality. I'm having it specially made in a thicker put-up to make it easier to hand paint so I can get the same colour effects as you're used to seeing on my silk bricks.
If you want to read more about silk, then the Wormspit website is filled with useful information, but is quite in depth.
This is a short, modified excerpt from my book, A Guide to Spinning Hand Dyed Fibre.
If you browse the shop on a regular basis you'll notice that the hand dyed fibre braids have lots of information in the titles, and at the end of the titles are a few key words...
Repeating, Variegated, Semi-Solid and Gradient.
Those titles are telling you how I dyed the fibre, and are a big clue about how the braid will spin. Now, these are my classifications, rather than a recognised "industry" standard, but I do use them consistently, and most dyers will describe braids using a variation on these themes.
This technique at first glance isn’t that different to the commercially dyed solid shades you can buy. However the hand dyed version will contain far more subtle variations. These give life to your yarn. It’s a particularly effective dyeing technique for yarns you know you’ll use for textured fabric for example cables or lace, because the variation in the colour won’t be fighting with the pattern of the stitches.
Many times when I dye a semi-solid I'll actually mix up 4 different subtle variations of the same colour, and use those to dye the fibre.
This dyeing technique uses multiple colours, they are applied to the fibre in a regular pattern to create blocks of colour that appear in the same order, and are the same length all the way along the braid of fibre. These braids can occasionally be hard to tell apart from variegated fibre, particularly if the colour blocks are short. The best way to tell is to unbraid your fibre, and lay it out in the same way the dyer will have done while applying the dye. It soon becomes pretty clear when the colour blocks start lining up. If you spin this yarn with no further manipulation then you will get a yarn that forms stripes.
This is not a description you'll see many dyers use, but I find it helpful to distinguish between this style, and one where the colours are applied in a ore random fashion.
This technique produces a braid with a whole variety of shades, but crucially they’re not placed at regular intervals, and appear in blocks of different sizes in a random order. That means the yarn you spin will have a variety of colours in it, but you won’t get a regular pooling or striping pattern. Again, the best way to check if this is the dyeing technique that’s been used is to unbraid and lay out the fibre. You shouldn’t be able to find any sort of repeating pattern. The degree of variegation will depend on how contrasting the colours were in the original braid.
In braids that are gradient dyed each block of colour will only appear once. In comparison to repeating dyed fibre this dyeing technique should produce smooth transitions from one shade to another. You sometimes see braids of mirror gradient fibre. In these the fibre will have been doubled, and then dyed. This means you can use the 2 halves of the braid for a very easy matching 2-ply yarn, or can spin each half separately for matching skeins to make a pair of items such as socks or mittens.
Ombre Gradients are similar to regular gradients, but only use one colour. This shade becomes progressively paler along the length of the braid.
If you want to get more in control of the yarns you can make from these fibres then there's lots of information, and a huge number of swatches showing the techniques and manipulations, in the book.
Over on the Ravelry group we're getting ready for this years Tour de Fleece. It's always the highlight of my spinning year, and last year we had a really lovely atmosphere in the team thread, with lots of spinning and plenty of helpful advice.
This year we'll be doing it all again, with the added bonus of a Team swap. As ever the team fibre is completely optional, and your can spin from stars and still join in.
Now this isn't going to work like a traditional swap, I'm setting it up so that you are guaranteed to get your parcel, and in a way you'll know what it contains.... are you intrigued?
The bike wheel is filled with a collection of 12 colours. I've selected them off the Tour de France website to represent this years race.
Wether it's the bright red peppers found in the host town of Stage 21, the beautiful buildings in Saint-Paul-Trois Chateaux , the mountain lakes in the Alpe d'Huez, or just the general beauty of the French countryside in July.
These colours are all going to be available in the 70% Superfine Merino & 30% Tussah Silk.
Thos who decide to go for the swap option will buy 100g in 2 different colours.
However, those 2 colours won’t be the only colours you receive. When I pack the orders I will send you 50g of your 2 colours, and 50g of the 2 colours from the order of the team member before you.
In your parcel will be a little note saying who contributed your mystery colours (just containing the Ravelry username, it’s then up to you how much you choose to share)
I've spent a few days messing around with samples of the colours, and there are so many options that work together really nicely, so it should be a great way to expand your colour palette, but still end up with colours that you like.
The colourways have all had special Tour names given to them, but the captions above tells you the regular names that they'll revert to after the Tour.
To co-ordinate with the Merino & Silk I'm also dyeing 2 special Tour colourways on Rambouillet. This French breed has a rather nice link to the tour, and is also soft enough to work with the Superfine Merino.
If you'd like to order some fibre, then head to the Ravelry group, and follow the instructions...
And of course, the Team fibre is completely optional, you're very welcome to join the Team in July and spin from stash!
Again this year I'll be making a charitable contribution for the Team fibre. For every bundle of swap fibre I'll be donating 50p, and for every 100g of the accompanying dyed Rambouillet.
The charity I've chosen to support is Qhubeka, an African based charity who provide bikes to people in rural communities. This lets children go to school more easily, people transport their goods to market, and allows healthcare workers to reach vulnerable communities. To provide a bike through the charity costs £160.
Back in January I shared the start of a stranded colourwork sweater I was making. I started over Christmas, but then have done lots of other projects on the side, and it took until the night before Wonderwool to finish it.
The whole project is a bit of a learning curve, and a prime example of making design decisions on the fly!
Here's the post I wrote in January at the beginning of the project.
Things I like... the unexpected colour combinations and the mismatching sleeves. The steeked neck worked really well, as does the garter stitch edging.
I love the comfiness of the jumper. Yes it's got no shaping, so it does look like I'm wearing a sack... however, I own lots of beautifully fitted jumpers, and when I'm sat at home I want a jumper I can wear lots of layers underneath, that doesn't ride up when I sit down, and keeps my bum warm.
The sleeves are a little over-large at the top. The size of the pattern motif limited when I could make the steek holes, and 2 repeats was not wide enough for my upper arm. What I needed to do was decrease stitches sooner, but I didn't want a snug arm on a loose fitting body, and instead ended up compensating in the other direction.
I also needed to go down a needle size for the garter stitch on the cuffs, and hem. For now I'm going to live with it and see how the stitches settle, and if it bugs me it's only an evenings work to rip out and re-knit.
This truly dreadful photo is the best of a very bad bunch... My skills with the camera on self-timer were lacking today! And yes... I did wash my face this morning, the shadows were not being kind!
Yarn was spun as a 2-ply fingering weight to match Jamiesons and Smith 2-ply jumper weight yarn.
The fibre is Superfine Shetland, hand dyed by me, the skeins used up all the oddments from various colour packs.
I have no idea about yardage... bu the whole project weights 720g.
Chest (and the rest of the body!) measures 44 inches (112 cm)
Body Length 26 inches (66cm)
Arm length 20 inches (51cm)
Motifs used were from 200 Fair Isle Designs.
I love dyed fibre in it's raw form, I once had a lengthy twitter debate about dyeing and wether it counts as art (side point, I think it is, particularly in the style I use, if you're only dyeing solid shades to a recipe then maybe not...)
However, the nice thing about this form of art is that it really is a group project, and I love seeing what happens to fibre once it's turned in to yarn, and then turned in to a useful item.
Over in the Ravelry group I run a thread that's dedicated to the sharing of skeins of yarn and finished objects, and it's always stuffed full of inspiration. Wether it's the first skeins from a new spinner, or a wonderful huge project combining many braids, I love seeing them all.
As a bit of a thank you for the effort people make in sharing photos I offer a bit of an incentive, and every 3 months there are two £25 gift vouchers available, the winners are picked from the thread using a random number generator.
The new thread has just been started, so if you get some yarn spun, or something made in the next 3 months then head over and share it, this time you had a 1 in 50 chance of winning the gift voucher, and those odds are none-to-shabby!
Here's my favourite posts from the last 3 months, the images should all link to the original project pages if you want to know more details.
Probably my most favourite show of the year, it's Wonderwool time again.
There are many reasons I love going to Wonderwool, partly it's the close distance, there is something very nice about packing up on Sunday evening and being home before it gets dark! It's also an excellently organised show, all the behind the scenes things that you don't necessarily see as a festival attendee are done really well. I also love my big, light, airy stand, and that the aisles are huge making it by far the easiest show to walk around.
Getting ready for shows is a huge amount of work, but it's the one time I get to see my fibre en-masse, and to talk to people about using it in person. It's an even bigger task than many realise because I keep a completely separate stock of hand dyed fibre for shows, and everything that's sold online is kept at home.
Now I don't bring everything to shows, but I do try to have a really wide stock of bases, and dyeing styles. Here's what will be on the stand this year-
Corriedale, Yak & Rose
BFL & Baby Camel
Romney, Silk & Linen
Cambrian (BFL x Welsh Mountain, this is local wool)
Merino & Silk
Superwash Cheviot, Silk & Nylon
Camel, Seacell, Faux Cashmere
Silk & Kid Mohair
Silk, Yak Down & Royal Baby Alpaca
And then there are all the lovely little packs of goodies that are great for Drum carders, Blending boards and felt projects. I've just finished doing some small scale felting for a new product we're bringing this year, and they're great for transforming a very ordinary looking piece of wool in to something really pretty.
The base is made from wood supplied by our local timber merchant, Dad turns them on his lathe in the shed at the end of the garden, and polishes them using beeswax polish from our beehives. I made the felt that goes on the top, and then Mum fastens them all together. The stuffing inside is British wool.
Right, preparations are not complete, next up, going through the stocks of Tussah Silk, and making sure I have enough of all the different shades packed up.
If you're coming to Wonderwool I shall see you there... looks like being a chilly one.
My top clothing tip... A hat and pair of fingerless mitts help you feel considerably warmer, and are a lot easier to carry than a thick coat if the weather warms up.
I really did vow that 2018 would be the year I blogged more...
However this spring has been full of snow, kitchen fitting, and lots of exciting new business things, and writing a blogpost always seems to fall to the bottom of the list. Note to self, must do better!
So, in an effort to get back in to the swing of things I've got a giveaway...
I've been a longtime fan of Ply magazine, and occasionally write an article for the magazine.
In actual fact I've written an article in the latest edition. It's all about a workshop held at our guild where we spent the day learning to spin linen.
I get my subscription from The Threshing Barn, but as well my subscription copy I also have a contributors copy, so I thought we'd do a giveaway.
This edition is all about Linen, so I'm setting you a little challenge based around my Linen containing blend- Silk Road.
You need to leave a comment, with a link to a pattern that would be ideal for this blend.
Remember it's one with high drape, and low elasticity. You can use a single colour, or multiple shades.
Check the rest of the comments, because only the first comment suggesting a pattern will count. If someone else has suggested a pattern before you then you need to go and find a different pattern!
You have until Midnight GMT (UK time) on Saturday 14th April to leave a comment which counts as your entry.
So remember, it needs to have a link to the pattern, and it needs to be a pattern that no-one else has posted before you. Rather than a random drawing the winner will be the pattern I like best, so choose wisely!
I'll post the magazine out internationally, and will contact the winner by email, so you need to leave your email in the box that says "email address" when you leave your comment.
Just before Christmas I started stocking a really huge range of dyed Tussah Silk. I love dyeing silk, but in all honesty dyeing it in plain colours is really hard work for something that seems like it should be so simple. By getting the solid colours commercially dyed I can concentrate on hand dyeing the fun colourways, but still stock a beautiful range of colours.
Solid colours are really helpful in things like silk for a whole variety of reasons. Often you want to spin for lace, and a variegated colour way can work against the pattern. If you're going to use the silk for blending then solid colours are all you need. When I was doing a lot of carding I was often frustrated by the really limited palette of colours I could buy .
This silk is dyed in Italy to Okeo-Tex Standard 100 so you can be confident it's been dyed with environmental responsibility. The colours themselves are stunning, and so varied. I've got 39 that I will be stocking regularly (picking 40 would have been over-kill!)
So I wanted a sample to show them all off...
I took 10g of each colour, and then spun them in to a light fingering 2-ply yarn (approx 18wpi). From each colour I ended up with approximately 45m of yarn.
I direct warped my rigid heddle loom using 6 ends per colour with a 12dpi heddle. So during warping I filled 3 slots with a double end of each shade. I have a 25 inch Schact Flip, and this warp didn't fill the whole loom, but there's not quite enough space for 8 ends per colour. If you have a narrower loom you'll need to do the maths and check this warp will fit. You can always reduce the number of ends per colour and make it narrower, or if you have a larger loom you could do more ends per colour, you should have enough yarn spare if you spin it finely enough.
I used a soft-of spectrum to decide on the colour order... though with this many colours deciding on a "perfect order" is probably impossible! It's the same order as shown on the Tussah Silk page.
Warp length was approximately 2.8m to give a generous sized wrap once finished.
I wove in blocks of 8 picks per colour to give me rectangles rather than squares of colour. The edges were hem stitched on the loom, and then I twisted each colour separately to form the fringe.
Off the loom it had that stiff, new cloth feeling, but after a wash ( I didn't wash the yarn before weaving) it's softened up and the drape is lovely.
You have to feel to really appreciate it... but maybe this will help!
If you want to, you can make one of your very own!
The sample set contains all the fibre you'll need (and some to spare that you can use in other projects).
I am not immune to a craze... even though I am the most untrendy person you are likely to meet.
So I caught the Fade bug!
Back in July I wrote a blogpost about spinning for sweaters, and we've had a rolling thread over in the Ravelry group filled with lots of advice and encouragement. And after encouraging others, I acquired some fibre in a destash that was perfect for my own So Faded jumper.
Three braids are Rambouillet, dyed by me, and 3 are from other dyers, I like spinning stuff that other people have dyed on occasion... it feels like fun and not like work!
From left to right there was- HTC Rambouillet, Three Waters Farm 85-15 Polwarth & Silk, HTC Rambouillet, In To The Whirled 85-15 Polwarth & Silk, In To The Whirled Targhee and finally HTC Rambouillet.
This was my original colour order, but I actually did a bit of a shuffle when I looked at the finished skeins, and the middle HTC Rambouillet ended up moving to between the Targhee and the other Rambouillet braid.
First up came the sampling... because occasionally I do follow my own advice!
I found an oddment of commercial yarn in the right thickness, and spun to match that gauge. I kept back some of the singles to use as a reference, and a ply-back sample to check my plying twist. I spun enough for a swatch, washed the skein, and cast on.... and hated the fabric. I actually got a slight tighter gauge than the one in the pattern (7 stitches per inch instead of 6) but the swatch was far too open, and if I'm going to the effort of spinning for a jumper I want a fabric that will wash and wear well.
Now the joy of spinning for a project... I can ignore the recommended yarn, and just spin to produce a yarn that gives me a fabric I like, but one that still matches the gauge so that I don't have to do any maths.
On to version 2. A thicker yarn, so a denser fabric.
Onwards to the spinning.... 600g later, and there were 6 full bobbins. The braids from other dyers were dyed in what I call a repeating style, and I didn't want broad stripes, so I took the colour sequence to pieces. First I unbraided everything, then broke it in to chunks of varying length (but always containing multiple colours), then stripped it in to thinner pieces. I then shoved them in a bag and spun them in a random order. These bobbins were still in my original order, but when I plied and looked at the skeins, that's when I decided to swap things around slightly.
Because I had a reference card I could stay consistent, and because I had a ply back sample, when I committed the heinous crime (!) of plying from both ends of a centre pull ball I could put enough plying twist in. I finished spinning the singles at the end of September, and had just finished the plying before I went to America in middle of October.
Then came Christmas knitting... and the skeins sat looking at me. This is often the fate of my handspun skeins, but not this time, I ended up finishing it just before Christmas. Then life got in the way, the rain fell, and the snow. and I didn't get any photos taken. Finally however, the sun shone, and I had a spare 10 minutes.
as predicted January has been a busy yet fun month. Knitting is progressing, and I’ve been reading up on various constructions so I can get the rainbow jumper finished. I’ve also been working my way through various planning stages for the coming year.
However, all work and no play makes life very dull, so earlier this week I ventured out to learn something new. This year my Christmas present was a course at Westhope College, rather than add stuff to my life I decided to add skills!
So I spent the day learning about Lino Printing. These were my first test cuts and prints, nothing special, but I wanted to share them because I think it’s important to share the messing around stages. When I’m teaching workshops I nearly always have to overcome the rlucatnace people have to be bad at things! We like to be able to succeed at things immediately, and working through the messing around, and experimenting stage is something that as adults we’re all pretty rubbish at.
So... after the messing around stage, came the chance to make a proper design. I’d done some homework, because the last time I went on a printing course I didn’t have a design in mind, and it was all a bit of a disaster. I started out with a vague idea to do something sea related... so ended up with a school of fish. Then came up with the idea of the fish being spun in to a beautiful silvery yarn. A few versions and layouts later, and I’d got a prototype.
After several hours I ended up with my Lino...
The first test print... nearly right, and revealed that a rash final decision to take out the middle section of the twisting fishes was an error...
A cup of tea, and a slice of cake later, a few more bits made lighter and it was time to do some final prints.
Is it perfect... no, but I am pleased with it... and I know how I want to make it better. I won’t give up the day job any time soon, but I think I need to go shopping for some Lino cutting tools, and I shall carry on making mistakes, and in a few months time I’ll probably head back to Westhope and experiment with something else.
Hilltop Cloud- Spin Different
Beautiful fibre you'll love to work with.
VAT Reg- 209 4066 19
Dugoed Bach, Mallwyd, Machynlleth,
Powys, SY20 9HR