Ewe to You 2019: From Sheep Shearing to Knitting
Australia has long been said to have been built on a sheep’s back due to the success of sheep farming, principally for wool. The first sheep were brought to Australia along with the first fleet, which arrived near Sydney in 1788. However, they were unsuited to Australian conditions and did not prosper. Merino sheep were brought to Australia in 1797. The merino breed was originally developed in Spain and was much better suited to the Australian conditions and climate. Australia currently produces more than 25% of the world’s wool, and merino wool is particularly sought after. It is a fine wool with strands as little as 14 microns, and it is beautifully soft and suitable to wear next to the skin.
Back to Back or Ewe to You?
The Back to Back challenge is run internationally with the current record being a meager 5 hours. We opted for the Ewe to You Challenge with its less stringent rules and more relaxed pace. In 2018 the Albany Spinners decided to bring the Ewe to You challenge back to life at the Albany Agricultural Show with sponsorship from the CWA (Country Women’s Association). Over the two days of the show, a sheep was shorn, and members of the group spun the fleece, plied it, and knitted a man’s jumper. It was a great success and generated significant interest.
We spent several hours setting up our area in a corner of the pavilion. This included setting up a display of hand spun articles and garments, and a display showing natural dyeing materials and the colors that can be achieved through their use. There were also two working areas to be arranged. One was a children’s area with appropriately sized seating and tables. Children could participate in two activities in this area. The first was a coloring competition with prizes of hand spun and hand knitted or crochet beanies for each age category. The other was the opportunity to fulfil one of the requirements of the AG (agricultural) trail by completing some educational activities and gaining a stamp in their AG Passport. The AG trail and passport was implemented to encourage children (and their parents) to visit the agricultural exhibitions and displays, and to learn more about this important aspect of the area’s economy.
Shearing the Sheep
Although Australia is famed for its Merino wool, for the purposes of spinning and knitting without prior washing of the fleece, a cross-bred sheep was chosen. The fleece produced by Corriedale and Corriedale cross sheep is not as fine as merino fleece, but it can be soft enough to wear close to the skin and has a long staple (the length of the fiber from skin to the outside of the fleece). It is also more open in structure and easier to prepare and spin.
The first stage in the wool challenge is the shearing of the sheep. We were offered two sheep from the local Agricultural College, both Corriedale cross (our preference). An experienced wool grower recommended one of the sheep in preference to the other and shearing commenced at 9.30am.
As soon as shearing was completed, the fleece was taken to the sorting table to be skirted. Skirting is the term used for removing parts of the fleece that are extremely dirty. Belly wool and the area around the tail are generally grubby, and shorter than the remaining fleece. In a shearing shed, a wool classer would examine the fleece to determine its grade and quality. A roustabout would then be responsible for placing the fleece in the appropriate bail, with other fleece of similar quality. Belly and tail wool are placed into a separate bail.
Carding is the process of preparing fleece for spinning, basically it involves aligning the fibers, and fluffing them out. There are numerous options for preparing fleece. It can be done using hand-carders, English Wool Combs, flick carders, drum carders, and metal combs (pet combs work well and are inexpensive). For the purposes of the challenge we used a combination of hand-carders, English wool combs and combs.
Once carded, the wool is ready to be spun. Hand-spinning is not difficult, but there is a knack to it and most people’s initial efforts are uneven and range between over-spun and under-spun. The early days can be frustrating as spinning involves coordination between drafting the fleece (hands) and turning the wheel by foot pedal. It’s also necessary to make slight adjustments to the speed of rotation of the wheel, and the ‘brake’ which determines the rotation speed of the bobbin. As there are no numbered dials this must be accomplished by feel than anything else, and it takes a little time to learn what needs to be adjusted, and to what extent. All of which makes hand-spinning a wonderfully organic activity – and very relaxing after the initial learning curve.
As soon as we had two half filled bobbins, it was time to start plying. This process involves twisting the single threads from two bobbins together to form the finished yarn. A spinning wheel can be spun either clockwise or anti-clockwise. I spin clockwise to create a single thread (called a Z twist), and anti-clockwise when plying (S twist). This creates a balanced yarn.
When hand spinning wool is usually made into a skein after plying. It is then washed, dried and wound into balls before being knitted, crocheted or woven. Washing removes the dirt and at least some of the lanolin - I prefer to leave some lanolin in my hand spun wool as it makes the final garment or article water resistant. As we were working to a timeline, we omitted this step and the plied wool was immediately wound into balls. Knitting with greasy wool makes the wool sticky, slowing the knitting process. Warming the balls of wool by holding them close to the body helps to soften the lanolin.
Knitting started with the back of the cardigan as this was the largest part of the garment and involved the most work. Soon other knitters joined in – two knitting the fronts of the cardigan, and another two knitting the sleeves. Five knitters in total.
Assembling and Modeling the Garment
With all knitting completed, it was time to sew the cardigan together. It was then modeled by one of the spinners, and the shearer/wool buyer and wool classer who was fascinated by the entire process.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Nan Hewitt