Monday, March 19, 2012

Handspun Wool Yarn - by Helen Flagg

Eight years ago, my family visited Gore Place in Waltham, MA for the first time.  The occasion was their annual sheep shearing festival, now in its 25th year.  The kids patted the sheep and watched the shearing process, and they played with clumps of raw wool.  That day I bought my first of many skeins of gorgeous hand spun wool, and lovingly wound each skein into a plump ball.  The lanolin in the wool made my chapped hands feel softer.  The mittens I knit from this wool were beautifully textured and so very warm…they even smelled a little earthy when they got wet.  Even now every time I hold hand spun, I marvel at the beauty of the yarn and am amazed at how special this type of yarn feels in my hands and on my knitting needles.
For thousands of years, wool has been pulled and twisted together to form long yarn threads, which were then woven or knit into fabrics.  The spinning wheel has been used since the Middle Ages.  Hand spun wool yarn is made by cleaning, combing and carding wool into a clump, called roving.  The wool fibers are oriented in the same direction and gently twisted to prepare for spinning.  The spinner can control the width and texture of the spun threads.  By turning the roving on the spinning wheel, the wool threads are elongated and twisted together to form long, parallel fibers.

Handspun Wool from Patricia Weed's Farm in Norfolk, MA

I am fortunate to live in Massachusetts where there are thriving sheep farms and an active community of fiber arts enthusiasts.  Hand spun yarn is available in both natural colors, and vivid fashion colors, hand dyed with vegetable dyes.  While there are many differences between hand spun and machine made wool yarn, in my opinion the three main differences are Texture, Color and Cost.

Lambs at Ironhorse Farm, Sherborn, MA

Texture:  Hand spun wool is irregular in its texture and its twist.  The irregularities arise from the yarn being spun by hand and inadvertently spun more loosely in some places and more tightly in others.  Hand spinning is an art, a creation of human hands and as such the resulting yarn thread is not uniform.  The irregular texture of the yarn results in a knitted piece that has “nubbley” texture, with depth and a rich hand feel.  The texture and composition of hand spun wool yarn makes the resulting knit garment warm and insulating, well suited to wicking away moisture and keeping the wearer warm and dry.

Color: Hand spun yarn is often uneven in color, with subtle shade differences.  The reason relates to the irregular texture of the threads.  More dye is absorbed where the threads are loose and less dye is absorbed where the threads are spun more tightly.  And just like hand spinning, hand dyeing is done – well, by hand.  And that means that dyes may be unevenly applied and that each batch of wool may be a slightly different shade.

Hand spun wool yarns knit into cowls,
by Simple Knit Shop

Cost: For most, the difference in cost between hand spun and machine spun wool is the most notable. A skein of 150 yards of hand spun pure wool yarn may cost $18.50 but 150 yards of acrylic, machine made yarn may cost $1.99.  However, cost is not an accurate measure of value since the hand spun wool yarn and the machine made acrylic yarn are not comparable products, any more than an expertly  hand crafted pastry made with high quality pure ingredients is comparable to a Twinkie.  Or a hand carved piece of furniture made from solid hard wood is comparable to particle board furniture that comes in flat boxes and has to be assembled. The cost of hand spun wool yarn reflects the time and effort taken to create an artisanal product.
                Different projects call for different wool choices.  If you desire to create a unique, long lasting, one of a kind knit piece that supports hand craft artisans – then hand spun wool yarn is the choice for you.

This was written by Helen Flagg and published on her behalf. The photos shown are of her work and not to be copied or reproduced in any form without her consent. To see more of her work or contact her please visit:

Helen Flagg's Shop on Etsy - SimpleKnitShop
Helen Flagg's Etsy Profile
SimpleKnit On Facebook

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