A Good Yarn

The following article appeared in NFU COUNTRYSIDE MAGAZINE: www.nfucountryside.org.uk
& is reproduced by kind permission of the author: Dorothy Hollamby


The gentle rattling sound of a spinning machine confirms the traditional art of making wool is thriving on a Sussex farm.

When Roger & Pam Mobsby bought a smallholding in Sussex, they realised its dilapidated 16th century barn and outbuildings were crying out to be used by more than their small flock of sheep. They set up a wool spinning workshop, and were later joined by business partner Sheila Petitpierre.

Diamond Fibres offers a specialised service for people who have a fleece and want to turn it into wool or a bespoke garment. The company also cleans and cards wool for those who want hassle-free hand-spinning. Although it has never advertised, Diamond Fibres has customers worldwide, including Japan, the US and New Zealand. Its reputation has spread by word of mouth.

Roger’s love of old machinery was the catalyst for the enterprise. He bought his first spinning machine in 1988, and from that moment yarn production took over from sheep farming as the Mobsbys’ main priority. Roger bought old carding and spinning machines from mills in the north that were closing down, putting his mechanical flair to the test to set them up. He first had to fit them into their new home – an old, brick chicken shed. Some had to be cut in half and others were altered. He also collected vital information from men who had worked with the machines all their lives, and from the universities at Bradford and Huddersfield.

Wool is unique in that it has hooks along its length, which add strength. Commercially, it is spun into one or two finished yarns. If the original fibres are long, they’re spun to ie parallel with one another. The result is a worsted yarn that is usually woven into a fine cloth to make items such as men’s suites. If the fibres are shorter, they are spun so they are jumbled up and soft; this yarn is use for knitting. Diamond Fibres produces semi-worsted yarn, which falls halfway between the two. Sadly, this means some fleeces, such as those from Charolais and Southdown sheep, can’t be processed as their fibres are too short.

It is important to start with a good quality fleece from a well fed, healthy sheep. The yarns produced range from single gossamer, fine threads to thick commercial knitting wool, which can be fro four-ply to chunky knit and rug wools. Diamond Fibres does not dye or weave, but it does spin other fibres such as mohair, silk and alpaca, although only from natural coloured fleeces. As a rough guide, an average Kent sheep will give 10 hanks (5,121 metres) of knitting wool, which would easily make a man’s large Aran jumper.

The process begins in the Mobsbys’ restored barn. Here, newly arrived fleeces are stored awaiting an initial inspection. If they are accepted for spinning, they receive their first wash, which is called scouring, before they are transferred to the main spinning shed, which is always full of activity. Roger knows all the teams intimately, and can tell precisely how they are running simply by the noise they make.

When the fleece is dry, it is spread out on the sorting table and carefully assessed for faults, which are typically produced through poor management, contamination or bad storage. The fleece is then washed again and returned to the sorting table for a detailed inspection, during which unwanted items will be removed. You name it, they find it, says Roger. Mostly, the team are looking for second cuts, which are short clippings from the shearing. Wood shavings and excessive marking by coloured sprays are bad news, too. Baler twine is at the top of the list of malefactors – it can endure spinning and appears in the finished yarn as coloured streaks, which are impossible to remove. The work is hands-on and time-consuming. However, each fleece is so different this task is never boring. In fact, the team work with many different breads of sheep, so are always learning.

Sorting is rigorous and ruthless. On average, just 40 per cent of the original fleece is used. Each sorted fleece is usually given four more washes. The team need to remove virtually all the fleece’s oil because any residual grease will quickly build up and cause problems with the machinery.

He first machine used is the preparer, which Roger constructed from two originals. It is based on a 1904 preparing machine and has wide, water-resistant leather belts, driven by a fluted roller. The wool’s moisture level must be kept at 10 per cent. If it were completely dry, the atmosphere would be too dusty. The preparer opens up the tufts of wool, gently teasing them apart. The result looks like a bin full of soft cumulus clouds. Next comes carding. During this process, fibres from the original, tightly held tufts of fleece are separated and combed. The carding machine, too, is driven by leather belts and has rollers, but in this case they are covered with short teeth. The gap between each of the 16 rollers is just 0.38 millimetres, so they must be finely adjusted. Wool is gradually fed in on a slow conveyor belt and candyfloss type wisps appear at the other end. These join into a fragile ribbon of fibres that resemble a jet’s vapour trail. This ribbon, called a ‘sliver’, gently curls down into a waiting bin.

Next is the open gill, which does the same job as a comb, and starts to make the fibres parallel. Fibre length, which varies between fleeces, determines how many slivers are fed together into this machine. Three or five slivers are fed in and a single one is taken out that is more even in texture and colour. This sliver moves on to the larger gill, which has combs at the top and bottom. It completes the process of making the wool fibres parallel. Sixteen slivers are fed in to produce a single, very even sliver with a false twist. The large gill can produce a 45 metre sliver in one minute. Even at this rate, however, a typical rug takes four hours of gilling time. Customers who wish to hand-spin will buy their wool at this stage.

Good arithmetic is essential for spinning, as the amount of twist must be precisely calculated. As well as the length of individual fibres in the roving, the average length of the longest hairs must be measured. These are used to calculate the distance set between rollers. If the distance is too short, the thread will break; if it is too wide, the individual fibres will pull apart from one another and will not spin into a thread.

Freshly spun wool on its large wooden bobbins is best left for at least 24 hours to allow the twist to set. The yarn can then be plied on a plying machine that twists two yarns together backwards. This leaves just 80 per cent of the original twist. After this, the twist is again left to set and relax. Finally, the wool is wound into hanks and twisted. At last it is ready for dispatch.

Diamond Fibres has a team of hand knitters who turn the thread into garments. Classic designs are often used, but patterns can also be made from drawings supplied by customers. Experienced knitters test any new patterns. Japanese and French customers seem to prefer Aran jumpers, while Americans favour other knits, or straight yarns to knit up themselves.

In its relatively short lifespan Diamond Fibres has made a huge array of different items, including a shawl knitted on No.5 needles with a single, fine thread from a Wensleydale sheep. The result was a beautiful, lacy garment weighing 100 grams that could be threaded through a wedding ring. Whatever they make though, the care and attention that goes into it makes it clear this business is truly a labour of love.