On September 24, 2001, my friend Deborah Pulliam sent me a box of fibers.
Inside she tucked a note:
Deb's Down breed sample assortment
(sock wools to follow!)
I opened, patted and admired, and set the box in a safe place to enjoy later, when I could truly appreciate the fibers.
Deb Pulliam and I shared a fondness for fleeces from the Down breeds of sheep, which are generally maligned as handspinning fibers. I'm not sure where her affinity for them began. I know it ran deep. In my case, when I started to spin in the 1970s wool in any spinnable form was as challenging to find as a spinning wheel (very), and what I could locate was, generally, grease Suffolk or Dorset from meat flocks or backyard sheep (in one case, the pets of children who were allergic to dogs and cats). So that's the kind of wool I initially learned to wash and then spin.
Years later, when Deb and I got to know each other because she was writing for Spin-Off and I was editing the magazine, I could never take Deb up on her open invitation to come visit her in Maine. I was a single mother in a precarious financial state; both time and money for travel were scarce. But we had hour-long-plus phone conversations, often on Saturday evenings, and we exchanged e-mails, and occasionally we met in person: at a SOAR in northern Vermont and at a Textile Society of America meeting in Northampton, Mass.
In 2007, when Deb was at the end of her fight with cancer, I finally flew to Maine to see the home whose restoration I'd heard about and of which I'd seen many photos. I went to help Deb be in her home, rather than the hospital, during her final weeks. At that point, it was not a time for much talk about about wools.
The project I'm working on now began its life in fall 2007, not quite six months after Deb departed from this plane of existence. Over more than two years, co-author Carol Ekarius and I have been gathering fibers for it. As we have gotten close to our deadline, there has been what I consider a serious gap in what we've been able to obtain: we have not been able to find representative samples of all six core Down breeds. We've located good Shropshire, Southdown, and Suffolk (what I've come to think of as "the S set"). We have been missing Dorset Down, Hampshire, and Oxford.
I remembered Deb's box and thought hard. These wools are special to me, and I wasn't sure I wanted to have them subsumed in the mass of fibers I'm processing. But I decided (no, I KNEW) that Deb would want the Down breeds well represented, and I pulled her box from its safe corner to see whether what she'd sent might match what we were missing.
She had tucked in Dorset, although what she sent is almost certainly (because of where it came from) wool grown by a poll Dorset (white-faced sheep), rather than by the Dorset Down (brown-faced sheep) that we need:
Dorset—from Cummington (?), Mass.
My favorite of this year's fleeces!
Combed w/ double pitch Viking combs
The "Cummington (?)" means Deb almost certainly acquired the wool at the Cummington Sheep and Woolcraft Fair, which she took great pleasure in attending. The wool itself may not have come from the town of Cummington, and she was diligent in her documentation.
Even though this wool wouldn't fill one of our gaps, I spun it. I spun it with more care than I've been able to apply to the other samples, which are being produced with unseemly speed. I may be willing to dedicate these wools to the project, but I am not willing to rush their spinning.
Then I turned to the next packet:
Ryeland from Lanark, Scotland
Combed w/ Louet mini combs
Because of being rolled & shipped, lock structure is messed up—probably should have just carded it all—
(but I love combing!)
Ryeland is Down-like but not from the same branch of the sheep family tree. We have two Ryeland samples. The black is lovely, and I've spun it, but the white was not a good representative of the breed so while I'd pulled sample locks I had not made a skein. So I turned to the wheel with Deb's sample. She had combed about half with her Louet mini-combs. After reserving sample locks, I combed the remainder on my Louet mini-combs and spun a skein that speaks effectively for Ryeland.
I love combing, too. My primary fiber-prep tools for this project are a pair of Louet mini-combs (mine are two-row) and a pair of double-pitch Viking combs.
Change to post: It's morning and the Ryeland's dry now, so I've taken its photo. I also put the Dorset skeinlets in the shot again, because their original photo was taken in my spinning area at night with woefully inadequate artificial light. I knew if I didn't get the post up when I had both the thought and a moment, it would never be written, so I took what I could get. . . . The extra fluffiness in the Ryeland is just part of what good Ryeland does, even when spun with predominantly worsted (unfluffy) techniques. The Dorset is also wonderful. I want to knit it and show what it can do. (Must Move On.)
Within the boxes of fibers we had acquired from other sources, I located a bag of Oxford that I had held off on processing—not one Deb had sent, but wool from a meat flock in the Great Plains. As soon as I had seen it initially, I knew that getting anything from it that would show the potential of Oxford would be a challenge. It was full of the sort of chaff that doesn't wash out and doesn't fall out during preparation and spinning (as a lot of vegetable matter does).
Realizing that this was as good as I was going to be able to get, I sorted through and found enough clean locks to spin a small skein (on the right). I also spun a skein to show the persistence of this particular type of chaff (on the left).
So we have Oxford now. Deb would be happy.
And Deb's taken care of Hampshire for us in glorious fashion, although I haven't spun these yet:
Natural black & white Hampshire from Stillwater, ME *
Carded @ Val Weiland's little mill [DR note: Wood-Stock Farm Carding Mill, Hampden, ME]
* Owners got rid of all Hamps because "We want to sell wool to handspinners" so they bought Romneys. Argh!
I'll also spin her Suffolk, even though I have already spun a very sweet Suffolk that we obtained (through some sort of miracle) on eBay. (Some of the best . . . and some of the worst . . . of our samples have come from eBay.)
Suffolk—backyard sheep in Brooklin, ME
A tad coarse (esp. compared w/ Dorset) but very serviceable
Some extra veg. & dirt but washes up nicely.
Nice counter to "Suffolk is crap/no good for spinning"
Prize comment from workshop participant: "Hey, you can make a nice soft yarn from coarse fleece!"
Combed w/ double pitch Viking combs
I still don't have a Dorset Down sample. I may need to proceed without it (along with a few other breeds, like the Arcotts and Romanov and all of the "hairy mutant Romneys"). We're not being allowed to take forever with this project, much as we'd like to. There's that deadline.
As I've been spinning Deb's wool, appreciating her help despite the fact that she's gone, I've come to realize that I've been a custodian for these fibers. The reason I haven't already spun them is that Deb needs to be part of this project. Her Down breed sample packet was meant not just for me, but for all fiber folk. So now that's the job it's doing.
And I'm going to make one more try at getting some Dorset Down. . . . For Deb's sake. . . .