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Deb Robson and Tussah

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« The wools and I hit the road again | Main | A snow story--but what is it? »

January 12, 2010


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Diana Troldahl

Fascinating. I think even though I have little to no contact with sheep :-( I will love your project when it is complete.
I MISS interacting with critters.
Cats are nice, but I miss the sheep and cows and horses and miniature goats and emus and buffalo and all the other weirdnesses you can come across in rural Michigan.


How come kemp doesn't take dyes that strike on protein fibers?

Deb Robson

Thats an excellent question, Ted, and the matter of kemp and dye appears to be complicated. Id love to get to the bottom of it. My nosing around over time has come up with a few clues to whats happening.

In part, it may be that kemp *does* take dye, but not in a way that colors it as effectively as the dye colors the surrounding fibers. The American Sheep Industrys chapter on wool in the big sheep production handbook doesnt have a lot to say about kemp (which is not desirable in the flocks that are its readers primary focus), but is careful to say that kemp fibers do not appear to accept dyes well. I think thats a key. The dyes may strike, but they may not have the same effect that they do on regular wool fibers.

I havent (yet) found anyone who has a definitive answer to whats going on. Here are a couple of notes Ive taken: Kemp fibers are opaque, rather than translucent, which may mean that dye taken into the interior of the fiber isnt visible. And because their structure is different from that of the other fibers, they may take up dye in different, less visually effective ways. People who do dyeing for carpet wools have to deal with this. Someone in that world probably knows. Id be delighted to meet and chat with that person.


I love your explorations! Thanks for sharing a bit of the kempy world with us. Wool from Crete, btw, feels very kempy and coarse. Even the combed wool I spun from a distaff seemed coarse and kempy--but it will last and wear forever, of course.

I hope your time away is productive and peaceful!

Deb Robson

I can easily believe that about the Cretan wool. Id love to go there some time.

Its really good to be here.


I really enjoyed this post.

I am knitting socks at the moment from a 100% Swaledale sheep. The sheep comes from the North Yorkshire moors and has a very thick fleece with a lot of kemp in it. I'm told the sheep can eat their fleece if they get stranded in a snowdrift, because of the protein in this kemp! I am interested in this kemp as it seems to be generally considered as a highly undesirable element in a fleece... I wonder if this is because it resists dyes, and so does not produce an even or consistent shade when coloured? For myself and from a tactile point of view I don't think the presence of kemp in my Swaledale is a bad thing at all!

My Swaledale yarn has been very well spun by a spinning mill in Sussex, and I think it may even be worsted spun as it is a very dense, even yarn. There are still sticky-out bits like in your photo of the welsh sheep handspun, from where the kemp has resisted getting any twist in it, but I love the varied white that is the result of white wool with kemp of a lighter shade strewn through it.

I love socks made from the stuff. They do not feel like they will wear through on the heel at the slightest provocation like my 100% merino socks do, they are incredibly warm and they wear in to become very soft. The kemp gives them a life and crispness that is perfect for a walking sock.

Do you know yet what you might make from your lovely, characterful, kempy handspun? It looks to me like another great contender for strong walking socks!


Does the kemp affect the elasticity? I'm thinking in terms of yarn suitable for weaving - belts, straps, etc, where elasticity wouldn't be an asset.

Deb Robson

A whole lot depends on the amount and type of kemp, which can be more or less coarse, as well as long, short, or medium. Swaledale is, indeed, known for its kemp content! Like the rest of the fibers in a fleece, kemp is protein-based.

Kemp is not considered desirable for middle-of-the-road functional industrial wool processing. When you put fiber in one end of the supply line and want to get mass-market sweaters and socks out the other end, both kemp and off-color fibers mess up your end product.

For individual crafters, kemp can be a positive attribute, as youre discovering. For example, Eastern European socks are often harsher than folks from some other parts of the world consider appropriate, because theyre made from coarser wools that may contain kemp. And youre right: theyll wear well! Some people can tolerate the stronger wools on their feet (or elsewhere). Some cant. Those who *can* get to have more durable socks {grin}.

I dont have enough of my sample to actually make something. For this project, I get to spin all these small samples and dream about what each might become if it were bigger, and then I have to move on. Ill be interested to see which fleeces I am most drawn to when the project is complete. This ones a charmer.

Deb Robson

Kemp is not elastic. Whether it would affect the yarns elasticity would depend on how much kemp, how coarse, how long, and if it was effectively caught in the yarns twist.

The wool within the kemp-containing breeds fleeces is often lower in crimp (and therefore elasticity). For TRUE stable, inelastic yarns for weaving belts and straps (or for techniques, like cardweaving, that require sturdy yarn), the English longwools or breeds like Karakul would be primo. Kemp is not their thing, but staying where you put em is.

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