I'm setting out to make some sweater yarn. Not just sweater yarn: great sweater yarn.
One of the things I love about spinning is how much craft there is in creating exactly the thing you set out to create. There are many factors that contribute to any particular yarn, and a good spinner can keep all of those in motion at once and come out with exactly the yarn they need for a project, and they'll probably never find it in a store.
This is the foundation for creating a great sweater yarn.
I want a cardigan sweater that's soft enough for contact against the skin, yet durable enough to wear often. I want it to be warm, and I want to use some fiber from my own herd of alpacas. And I want it to be purple.
Additionally, there are things to consider about making the yarn itself: I don't have a lot of time to sit at my wheel these days because of my small kids, so the yarn would have to be spinnable on one of my drop spindles, and plyable as well. Otherwise I'll just never get it done.
To craft a yarn that'll give me the sweater I'm designing in my head, it starts not with alpaca fleece, but with sheep fleece. Alpaca is not a fiber you can knit an entire sweater exclusively in; it's two and a half times warmer than sheep wool and has no memory, so any wear is going to cause it to sag over time since sweaters are not light items like scarves or shawls. So to create The Great Sweater Yarn, it's going to have to be primarily made of sheep fleece. But...which fleece?
Merino has always been the go-to fiber for most handspinners, myself included. But Merino is a very soft and short-stapled fiber, which means that in a garment that'll get a lot of wear, you're going to get a lot of pilling as the short fibers experience abrasion. For sweaters, the best bet is to find a good medium-staple fiber with some luster and harder-wearing properties.
In my quest over the last couple of years to branch out and use different sheep breeds in my fiber work, I tried a couple of different commercially-processed tops: Finn, Falkland, and Corriedale. All of these were definitely a little more hard-wearing than Merino, but nothing stuck out to me as being perfect for my project.
And then I went to Starshire Ranch.
In a separate fiber work quest, I'd been looking for a local-ish ranch that I could buy sheep fleeces from -- I'd wanted to start "spinning into my fiber shed", which meant working with locally-sourced fleeces as much as possible. I also wanted to do more of the processing myself for fibers I was blending with my alpacas, and I found Starshire Ranch in Ellensburg. According to their site, they had Merino sheep as well as other breeds, like Finn and Gotland. I knew I wanted Merino, and when she mentioned that she had a white Finn fleece ready as well that was beautifully clean, I did some quick research and remembered that the Finn top I'd used before seemed adequate as a harder-wearing fiber. Sure, I'd take a Finn fleece as well, I told her.
I drove the long but beautiful drive to Ellensburg and picked up a black Merino fleece from a sheep named Thor, a white Merino fleece, and a Finn fleece from a sheep named Emmie. True to her word, the Finn fleece was beautiful: it was lusciously crimpy and clean, nothing like what I'd seen in the commercially-processed Finn top I'd tried a year ago.
When I got home I washed some of the black Merino and some of the Finn. After washing, I sampled a bit. Knowing that Finn is a medium-staple length fiber with luster, I knew that combing (as opposed to carding) was going to be the best way to prep the fiber. I combed and dizzed a few piles of Finn and then chose my hand-carved low-whorl spindle -- again, because the slower spin of a low-whorl spindle would probably be best for a longer staple fiber.
I wasn't disappointed at all: the hand-combed top was beautiful and lustrous, nothing like the commercially-processed Finn top I'd used before. And it drafted like butter. I was surprised at how thin a single it would let me make. But since I knew this was for a sweater, I wanted something closer to worsted weight. No problem -- it drafted just fine for that, too.
I have no idea why this fleece felt so much better than the commercially-processed Finn I'd used before. The hand-washing and hand-combing? The care and feeding of her sheep? Maybe all of it. Regardless, I fell in love with my sample immediately after plying it up.
Next, it was time to add in the alpaca. I knew I wanted a small amount of alpaca in my yarn; 30% seemed reasonable. It would be enough to provide warmth but not enough to overpower the crimpy properties of the Finn, which I would need for a sweater to retain its shape over time. I combed more Finn and as I combed, I layered in some black alpaca from my boy Benz, who had the best staple length and softness to blend with the Finn.
The resulting top and yarn was amazing. Again, it drafted like butter. When it came to plying, I was very deliberate in my choices: I wanted an overplied 2-ply yarn. Why not a 3-ply, since I wanted to knit cables into my sweater? Because a 3-ply yarn would make for a higher grist, which is a heavier sweater. By overplying a 2-ply yarn, I can get close to the roundness of a 3-ply -- which adds durability to a yarn -- without adding in as much weight.
It was time to knit my sample and see how my choices actually worked out in practice. Next time: swatches and color.