Almost ready to knit

As I was packing for France, I sorted out a huge amount of clothes to go to Goodwill. I figure if I can go a year without even missing something, I can probably get rid of it. And I have too much stuff. Coming home after graduation was the first time I had really been home for more than a week or two in four years. Living amidst the stuff I had brought to school and the stuff I had left behind was claustrophobic and humbling. As much as I fret over having the right thing to wear on certain occasions, I never have to worry about having something to wear–but many people in the world, of course, do.

This opinion piece, “Bridging the Clothing Divide,” is about an excellent charitable endeavor that aims to redistribute clothing in India from middle-class to poor citizens while making the process a dignified one. Just read it.

Back on the homefront of my war on terrible fashion decisions, I found it easy to get rid of poorly-made, ill-fitting garments (duh), but at the same time, I was beginning a knitting project with home-spun wool. Wool I had, in fact, spun myself earlier in the spring.

So I found myself going through yet another time-consuming, laborious process while quickly chucking out manufactured garments. The contrast seemed worth exploring.

The wool began here:

after shearing

Or rather, the wool really began earlier, when the sheep was starting to grow out its long wool coat. The wool was possible because of grass growing, sun shining, fences standing, etc. The sheep in that photo had just been shorn earlier in the day and was trying her best to recognize her fellow flock members at the time. I helped out during the sheep shearing by shoving each sheep from a stall through a little door when it was its turn to be shorn. Here’s the herd BEFORE:


They are not too keen on the process, so it takes a bunch of people (in lieu of a dog) and an experienced shearer to get this whole operation to work. Even with this high people-to-sheep ratio, it took several hours to get the sheep penned up and ready, clean out the barn area where the shearing would take place, shear every sheep, and skirt the wool.


Like I said, not too keen. They clean up nice though!



Skirting the wool is a time-consuming and annoying process that I was thankful to get out of doing. However, another friend of the sheep farmer’s got stuck with that job. Basically it entails pulling mud and bits of stuff that is ickier than mud out of the wool. Obviously you can’t make it perfect this early in the game, but the goal is to get each fleece ready to be washed, carded, and fluffed into roving.

The thankless task of skirting wool

The thankless task of skirting wool

You technically could do these stages (washing, carding, etc.) at home, and of course for many centuries that’s what people did. However, it is easiest to send the wool out to be processed and sent back as roving. Roving is one of my favorite wool-related words. If you’re not talking about wool, “roving” is moving about in a vaguely exploratory manner, perhaps at speed (more so than ‘wandering’) but with less intentionality than ‘striding.’ Someone may cast a roving eye if she is unhappy in her marriage. Etc.

When it comes to wool, it is also something that can end up moving about quite quickly, but usually because a cat knocks it off its perch–it’s a ball, roughly the size of a large basketball, of one long strip of wool fibers. The fibers are lined up (because they’ve been carded), but they don’t really stick together firmly enough to do anything with them.

Ergo, spinning. Now unfortunately I do not have a picture of me spinning this wool, but just picture Rumpelstiltskin and you’ll be fine. The process really hasn’t changed drastically although there are, of course, more modern spinning wheels. Still, the one I used looked just like the ones in old paintings.

I happen to enjoy spinning–it’s quiet and rhythmic and once you get the hang of it you can talk or listen to music or just think about things while you’re doing it. So I spun a bunch of wool. Eventually, you organize the wool into skeins, which are what you expect to buy in a yarn shop.

However, unlike yarn from a yarn shop, homespun wool needs to be washed (GENTLY, so it doesn’t get matted) before being knitted, crocheted, or woven. The scene for this task was my shower; here is the bizarre display:


It took about two days for this yarn to dry out fully (thanks, humidity!), but now–FINALLY–it is ready to be knitted. For me, this means basically several pairs of fingerless gloves. As much as I love the sheep, their wool, and spinning it, I really just want warm hands through the winter–so, gloves, nothing fancy. And really, nothing beats the r-value of sheep’s wool mittens.

What the process as a whole reminds me is that many other garments are similarly time and labor intensive. The cotton tee shirts that are easy to throw out were first cotton seeds, then cotton plants, then cotton fabric sewn and shipped from another country. In fact, even the simplest manufactured garments are relatively complex compared to my very direct sheep-to-mitten experience. The difference is simply that I don’t experience that complexity, and therefore don’t have a personal connection to the process.

The finished fingerless mitts are now with me in France, where I can’t believe the bucolic fall days will ever end.

La Rhone

  1. Which reminds me… A neighbor who had a small herd of sheep recently sold them, moved into town, and left me with several bags of wool that she’d accumulated over the years and hadn’t had time to process. In addition, I also have a seven Shetland sheep and two alpacas that are badly in need of shearing. Hummmm….have you ever given any thought to spending your next vacation shearing, carding, spinning and knitting in rural Oregon? 😉

    • Emma said:

      Unfortunately, I still haven’t learned how to shear… but otherwise, I’d love to do that! Make sure to keep the wool separated and identified so it doesn’t get ratty or jumbled. Maybe you could put an ad out at a local knitting shop for someone to process the wool?

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