Thursday, 28 April 2011

...a travelling spinner of yarns.....

Well, I travelled, spun a number of yarns (in both senses!) and now I'm home again!!

           Piazza Anfiteatro in sunny Lucca, early in the morning so no tourists - except me!
Lucca was lovely, apparently the best spring weather for ages and certainly much nicer than it had been here in Perthshire before I left. But of course the main purpose of the trip was spinning - or teaching spinning workshops to be exact - not enjoying the weather.

After much organisation (ably supported in Lucca by Donna, to whom I am most grateful), the gathering together and packing of equipment and materials, and not least the effort of producing a spinning book in Italian (thanks to Marco for help checking the grammar etc. and to Malcolm for taking photos where both my hands neded to be shown!), the day finally arrived to set off on my spinning travels. My big black holdall was almost up to the weight limit and the only personal item in it was my shampoo!! And my carry-on bag had quite a lot of things for the workshops in it too, including several copies of my very own spinning book in Italian, result of much labour and hopefully useful to the learners. So, not exactly travelling light, I reached the airport and checked in my bag, not knowing what the airport security or customs would make of a partly dismantled spinning wheel, several pairs of carders, (for the un-initiated, these are covered with hundreds of bent wire teeth), spindles, metal combs, niddy noddies, various spare parts for spinning wheels, silk coccoons....... not quite the usual holiday luggage that they must be used to seeing. After an uneventful flight I was very relieved when my bag was one of the first ones to appear on the carousel!!

Donna kindly picked me up at the airport and took me to Lucca, it was lovely to see her again, and we had a chance to go over last-minute arrangements including (very important) what was on the lunch menu for the workshop days!

I had booked a room in B&B La Torre, where I have stayed before, and the welcome was just as friendly as the last time. It is family run and really feels like staying 'in famiglia'. It is also in a great central location.

The first spinning weekend - 3 workshops, 8 learners

Our hosts for the first weekend of workshops- the Lucca Centre of Contemporary Art (LuC.C.A.) were most accomodating. From letting us in the day before to set up, to disposing of all our rubbish at the end of the weekend, they couldn't have been more helpful.
 Donna and I spent several hours on the Friday afternoon setting up - there were three spinning wheels to be built, and all the rest of the equipment to be unpacked and organised. Then we had a very pleasant evening, having dinner with the spinners wo had started to arrive in Lucca from far-flung parts of Italy.

Eight learners (and I) gathered for Workshop 1, which was was designed to give a chance to learn different methods of preparing fibres, especialy raw fleece. Fleeces are suprisingly difficult to get hold of in Italy, ours came from Roberta Castiglione's Lana d'Abruzzo, and was a fleece from a Sopravvissana sheep. It was actually featured in a TV programme on RAI about the economy of the mountains, back in February, when they showed it being shorn.

Photo - Roberta

Our sopravvissana flecce being shorn - and filmed for TV!

Roberta had been careful to pass on a message from the shepherd that the fleece would contain straw and hay because the sheep spend the nights indoors, to protect them from wolves. As the last wolf in Scotland was shot about 250 years ago, we don't have that problem and our sheep stay outside.
Because of timings I had not had the opportunity to examine the fleece before the workshop apart from a quick peek the day before. When we opened it out we discovered that straw and hay were the least of our problems. The sheep clearly lie in their own dung and the tips of the staples were well and truely caked hard with it. All credit to the ladies taking part in the workshop who persevered and worked with the fleece for a couple  of hours. A sense of humour certainly helps!! (And rubber gloves for the truely squeamish!)

Photo - Donna (who didn't want to touch it!)

We duely spread out the fleece and divided it according to the differences in quality of the wool. The quality (under the dirt) was really very good, and there was not much variation across the fleece. The fibres were soft and fine, with good crimp, resilience and elasticity. Because these sheep are shorn twice a year the wool was quite short - about 5-6 cm, and the colour was a rich cream rather than white.

Photo- Donna

Then we moved on to carding and combing - processes which prepare the wool for spinning woolen or worsted - two very different types of yarn. Opening up the muck-caked tips of every staple was very time consuming and had to be done thoroughly for the wool to be properly carded, but the process did get rid of much of the dirt. Combing removed quite a lot of dirt but also a high proportion of shorter fibres, it is always a wasteful process unless you have a use for the short fibre. We also tried flick-carding, which was the quickest way to deal with this dirty fleece, but again very wasteful.

Photo - Donna
Rosaria and Serena carding, Silvia and Francesca combing and a red flick carder in front

I hope that the step-by-step photographs of carding and combing that I had included in the book were useful, and the spiral binding meant that it was easy to have the pages open beside you while working.

When I gave out the books I explained that these copyrighted 'pre-publication' copies were strictly not for circulation, and that I would be grateful for any corrections to the language or suggestions for improving the text. These have started to come in now and once I have revised the text the book will be available for distribution. The 'reviewers' will of course all get a free copy! Maybe I need to expand the section on washing fleece - I now understand why this is such a busy topic on the 'Italian Handspinners' discussion board on Ravelry!

As enthsiasm for the dirty fleece was waning rapidly, I quickly spun up a couple of rolags, and gave the yarn a quick wash. This 'sample' was very soft and elastic and hopefuly an encouragement to persevere with the sopravvissana fleece.

Photo - Donna

I also soaked some of the wool in a bucket of cold water for a couple of hours, gave it a quick rinse and spread it out on the windowsill in the hope that it would dry quickly enough for us to be able to use some of it the next day.

(Photo- Francesca)
There are hundreds of photos of the Torre Guinigi, but how many with some wet fleece in the foreground?!!!

Once everyone had a small supply of prepared wool  -carded or combed- we tidied away the rest of the fleece and moved on to cleaner fibres, with a certain feeling of relief.
I had brought some wonderful dark grey Blue-Faced Leicester, which I had washed before leaving home to avoid exciting the interest of the airport sniffer dogs. Long tightly-curled staples (18cm or more) of very fine crimpy fibres, the colour varies from deep brown with blonde tips bleached by the sun, to steely grey and almost silver, all on the same fleece. Beautiful to look at, it will be lovely to spin but a lot of work to prepare the wool for spinning.

Photo - Donna
Blue-Faced Leicester fleece - washed

I also had a bag of alpaca, straight from the animal but due to the absence of lanolin, virtually odourless. Easy to card or comb, but a bit slippery to spin. A lovely ginger-cat colour.

Photo - Donna
Un-processed alpaca

We experimented a bit with blending fibres using hand carders. We used industrially combed Shetland wool tops in a range of natural colours, and also some dyed combed tops which I think were Corriedale.

Finally to round off the morning workshop we experimented with silk. We looked at whole cocoons and talked about reeling the fibres.  I had de-gummed some cut cocoons at home and everyone had a go at teasing out the 'floss' ready for spinning. We also made a kind of roving from mawata silk hankies - each hankie is the fibre from one cocoon spread out to form a thin rectangle. Because there are very long fibres these rovings are strong enough to be knitted or woven without spinning, but they are easy to spin either on their own or with wool.

                Silk cocoons - whole                                                     and de-gummed                   

                Floss    (1 cocoon)                                       Roving (1 cocoon)

At lunch in the LuC.C.A. cafe-bar we discovered that we had a real mix of professions and interests, from astro-physics, molecular biology and neurophysiology to language, literature and antique restoration, via education, medicine and more. A really diverse group all drawn together by a fascination for fibre and yarn. Refreshed by good food and conversation, we returned to the work room.

Workshop 2 focused on spinning with drop-spindles. Some peole had already tried this, some had even been at my first taster workshop in Florence last October, but for others this was something completely new.
We used simple bottom whorl spindles (mostly), including Graziella's handmade reproduction of an antique spindle with a clay whorl, and some mahogany-whorled spindles that were made many years ago for my mother, out of wooden panels from an antique fire-engine.

As well as the fibres that we had carded and combed in the morning, we had a large bag of carded wool from Lana d'Abruzzo. Most people started by spinning the greasy wool that they had prepared - the lanolin really does help the fibres to move past each other when you want them to (while drafting) but also helps the twisted fibres to hold together. The carded Lana d'Abruzzo also seemed fairly easy for the beginners to spin - it has been gently cleaned by an organic process using marsiglia soap, which leaves some of the lanolin but removes the dirt and sheep-dung smell. The fibres were very crimped and bouncy, lending themselves to a soft, almost spongy, elastic woolen style yarn. There was a high proportion of noils in this batch of fibre - these are very short fibres that form clumps, giving the spun yarn a slightly lumpy and fuzzy appearance. However, as most beginnners' first attempts tend to be lumpy anyway, this was more than compensated for by the ease of spinning this fibre.

Such concentration!!

By mid afternoon everyone had spun a reasonable amount of singles yarn, and it was time to turn to plying, especially for those who were not joining us on Sunday for Workshop 3. We discussed the reasons for preferring plied yarns over singles for most purposes, and how to judge whether the twist in the plied yarn is balanced in respect of the amount of spinning twist.
Plying with a drop-spindle usally results in balls of yarn running around on the floor and wrapping themselves around chair legs, but we managed without too much tangling, and several very creditable mini-skeins as the end result. We were all sorry to be saying goodbye to Annalisa, Emma and Serena, but as each left with a skein of their own handspun yarn to be treasured, I hope that they felt they had achieved what they set out to do.

Here are seven smiling spinners - photos by Donna which is why she is not among them.





Dinner that night, for those staying in Lucca, was at the aptly named Ristorante La Pecora Nera, again with very wide ranging conversation although somehow the topic of a certain rather dirty fleece kept resurfacing!!!

By mid moring on Sunday the five remaining learners and I were back at Lu.C.C.A. for Workshop 3 - spinning wheel basics. We had three Ashford Kiwi spinning wheels between five, so everyone took a turn on a wheel, and also spent some time either spinning with a spindle, carding or looking at the slideshow of spinning-related photos that I had put together to run on Donna's laptop.

Most people started by plying the singles that they had spun the day before, which gives a chance to get used to controlling the spinning wheel. The double-treadle Kiwis are great little wheels, but sometimes it takes a while to learn to keep the wheel going in one direction. Again a sense of humour helps, and was much in evidence!! Everyone tried different fibres and combinations of fibres - Graziella's white shetland with white silk roving was a subtle but very attractive mix.

After a welcome break for lunch it was back to spinning, plying and making skeins. Some had to leave early for trains etc but it was with a real sense of reluctance that we finally ended the session. I could certainly see the progress that each and every one had made in a few short hours, and again the skeins of precious handspun yarn were taken away to be proudly displayed to families and friends. I hope they were suitably appreciative of the work and determination that went in to producing them.

Donna and I had met Sara, Geni, Tomoko and Antonella (of the Antiche Tessiture Lucchese weaving co-operative) on Friday, and had started to discuss the possibility of running a second series of workshops. So once we had packed up, and with Sara's help deposited the equipment in several places scattered across Lucca, we made some more concrete plans.
     An everyday scene in Lucca? Donna and Sara with the Kiwis in Via della Fratta/Piazza Somaldi
I had cancelled the workshops planned for Milan due to insufficient numbers, so I was free the following weekend, and we decided to run a four-hour workshop on saturday afternoon covering carding (but not raw fleece) and drop-spindle spinning, with a five-hour spinning wheel basics workshop on Sunday.

Much of the week between the two series of workshops was spent meeting peple, making contacts and even giving interviews (!!!), but on Monday I needed a quiet day to relax after the hectic weekend, so I headed up to a shady seat on the famous city walls and sat for most of the day carding some of the Abruzzo fleece that I had soaked and rinsed on Saturday. Some of it was a bit damp but as it dried out it became easier to open and card the staples, and less smelly. Lots of dirt came out of it, I was glad I was working outside.

     I must have taken this in the only minute of the day that there was hardly anyone passing by!
On the walls of Lucca there are (almost) always lots of people - locals and tourists- walking, running, cycling or just meeting friends out in the fresh air. If you sit in one place long enough it feels like a constant theatre passing by. As I was doing something slightly unusual (ok, downright weird in some people's eyes!!) lots of people stopped to watch, ask questions or sit down for a chat. It was a really pleasant way to spend a day (I did take a break for a while and went for a walk and an ice-cream) but after about six hours of carding, I had carded an amount of wool that would normally take me about an hour with a clean, longer-stapled fleece. Short staples mean that for each rolag you need two or even three times as many staples, and when the ends are glued together every staple has to be teased open.

                                            Sopravvissana fleece after soaking and rinsing
Such slow painstaking work at the preparation stage gave me a chance to really get to know the characteristics of the wool, and think through what type of yarn would really show off its best characteristics. This is one of the reasons that I like to work with fibre from the very beginning of the process, starting with a raw fleece and sorting out the different qualities of wool, handling and examining the fibre before I even start to prepare it for spinning and planning how I am going to work with it, the thickness and amount of twist I need to produce the kind of yarn that I want, and that it is most suitable for.

For the Sopravvissana wool I decided on a fine two-ply yarn, fairly high twist because the fibres are fine but also quite short and also for durability. I didn't have a large quantity but hopefully enough for a pair of socks, a fine yarn makes a small amount of fibre literally go further.

                                      2 ply sock yarn spun in Lucca from Sopravvissana wool 
Over the next couple of evenings I spun the carded wool - it was very easy to spin in to the fine singles that I needed for my sock yarn, as it was probably the best-prepared wool I have spun for ages! My first skein measured 99 metres. I brought the rest of the un-carded wool home with me to spin while not watching the R***l W*****g, hopefully it will give me enough yardage for a pair of socks, but if I think I might be a bit short I can spin some moorit Shetland for stripes on the cuff. Knitting the socks from the toe up will give me a good idea of how far the yarn will go.

Donna wrote a short piece about the workshops which appeared in the Corriere di Lucca. Unfortunately when the sub-editor spotted the word 'lana' (wool) he/she gave it a headline about knitting!! We also later changed the venue from Palazzo Mansi to the APT offices.

By Friday I had spent some more time with the weavers at Torre Guinigi. They have written a very interesting booklet about the weaving traditions of the area and are working on recreating some of the original patterned weaves. Lucia spins and dyes as well as weaving, and we had some really interesting conversations at lunch and while she threaded up a very fine emerald green warp. If I was threading a warp I think I'd need complete silence, not to be carrying on a conversation in two languages and dealing with a steady stream of tourists!!

The second spinning weekend - 2 workshops, 6 learners

On Friday afternoon Donna and I gathered all the equipment and materials  and set up in one of the spacious offices of the APT - the room in the Lu.C.C.A. was in use for something else.

On Saturday afternoon five learners got together. As there was no raw fleece this time I talked about wool and what makes it so ideal for learning to spin, and we carded different colours of Shetland and Corriedale together, combed alpaca, and admired the BFL. We also had the carded Lana d'Abruzzo, some carded grey wool from Trentino that Lucia brought along,  and five natural colours of Shetland tops, so there was plenty of variety to try spinning, using the drop-spindles. Lynda and Lucia were not coming back on Sunday, so again we did some plying and skeining. Lucia already spins so she was trying out a Kiwi and she left a couple of bobbins of singles for Antonella to ply on Sunday.

                                         Lucia, Donna and Lynne spinning in the APT office
Sunday morning saw Serena rejoining us for a go at spinning with a wheel. We had three kiwis between five again, plus Lucia's old Louet S10 which she had brought along. The first spinning wheel I ever used (well over 30 years ago) was an S10, so it held fond memories for me but this one needed some TLC to get it back into good working order - and as no-one had a spanner or pliers on them there was little I could do for it.
Many people experience a moment when having to do different things with each hand,and something else again with the feet, and watch what is happening to the yarn, all feels like too much co-ordination but then it 'clicks' and all starts to come together. I often liken it to learning to drive - we all get there eventually if we persevere, and with spinning the consequences of not getting it quite right are less dangerous! This is the stage where people seriously doubt my assertations that spinning is really relaxing and therapeutic - you can see the concentration on the faces in the photos.

                                                            Antonella and Donna
The spinning went well and soon it was time to go for lunch at Ristorante Puccini, arranged for us by Sara. As we had pre-ordered our meals they arrived almost as soon as we were settled at our shaded table in the little piazza.

                 Antonella and her sister, Sara in sunglasses, Donna and Serena at Ristorante Puccini

Back to the APT for more spinning, plying and skeining. By the time we had discussed how to wash the yarn and set the twist it was time to pack up after another sucessful workshop. MOre precious skeins made their way home to be admired, and more friendships started, to be fostered over the coming months. 

                                               Mixed skeins on the windowsill at the APT

Once we had packed up and restored the office to something like its former order, most of the equipment made its way back to my B&B. Donna and I then spent a increasingly hilarious hour or so parceling up a partly dismantled Kiwi to be sent to Rosaria. The parcel bore a disturbung resemblance to a small wide coffin and I learned that Donna has a worrying taste for extra-wide sellotape!!! To our relief, the next day the post office accepted the parcel without any fuss, and it arrived safely about 24 hours later - highly impressive!

Monday was a day for R&R and shopping - I had already been to the street market on Wednesday and (twice) to the antiques market, so I should not have been surprised when I discovered at the airport on Tuesday morning that my bag weighed exactly the same going home as it did on the way to Italy - but the contents were almost entirely different!!!!

The main reason my bag was so heavy on the way home - an antique cord-maker from the mercato antiquario.
I am really pleased with the way both spinning weekends went, and extremely grateful to Donna for her help and support - and her friendship. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, and judging from the e-mails that I have received, so did the learners. Suggestions for improvements to the book have been sent, and I will soon get down to revising the text. 
 I'm glad to have had the opportunity to handle and spin an Italian fleece, from a breed I had never heard of before. I'm looking forwad to keeping my toes warm in the Scottish winter by wearing socks made of Italian wool, spun in sunny Lucca.

And yes, we are already starting to make plans for the next series of spinning workshops in Italy - probably in October, and probably including 'improvers' sessions as well as beginners' workshops. Watch this space!!

My next post will be about workshops here in Scotland, planned for the first weekend in June, in Birnam, Perthshire.