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Last week I wrote about my visit to Diamond Fibres. As we hadn’t finished our job, we went back last Friday. On our first visit Roger had given me a lot of information, so I took this chance to clarify a couple of things. Unfortunately I didn’t take any new pictures, so I’ll keep it brief.

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two gilling machines on the far left, the top of the combing machine at the right. Click on the image to see a larger version

After the wool gets carded, the carded fibres land from the back of the carder into a belt, with a funnel at the end and a number of rollers. These compress the continuous carded batt into untwisted sliver, which ends up in a big coil in a “can;” a large open-topped casket, so that you can move the delicate sliver to the gilling machine.

You can see two gilling machines at the far left in the picture above, one of which shows its feeding belt. The can goes underneath this belt and the sliver is fed into the gilling machine. The gilling machine will add some twist, but more importantly, it has rows of combs hanging down. These will align the fibres so that they lie parallel to each other. This first machine has the tines of the combs quite far apart (seven to the inch.) The sliver comes out at the other end and ends up in another can. This get’s moved to the second gilling machine, shown at the far left of the picture. This one has finer combs, with the tines spaced closer together (ten to twelve to the inch.) To align of the fibres even further. Again, the sliver is caught in a can. Once sixteen cans have been filled up, they go the combing machine.

The combing machine will only comb out noils (small clumps of short fibre), in order to end up with a very smooth yarn. It also adds a bit more twist to, what is now called, combed top and it gets wound onto the biggest bobbins. These then go onto the big machine in the middle of the picture above, and from there on, the process continues as described in last week’s post.

Any readers who enjoy preparing their own fibres for spinning will have noticed that the process of aligning the fibres and combing out the noils is reversed when you process fibres by hand. When preparing your own fleece at home for worsted spinning, you usually skip the carding altogether. The locks go straight onto the hand-combs, and you comb the fibres first to remove the noils. Once this is completed, you pull off the fibres with a diz (a small flat object with a small hole in it) to produce your combed top. Some people add some twist to this, by carefully winding it onto a make-shift distaff – this could just be a large knitting needle. Others leave the combed top as is.

Another thing I learnt is that Roger’s spinning machine is a flyer spinner (as I noted in the previous post, just like a spinning wheel at home), as this is more suited for longwools, the type of wool Diamond Fibres specialises in. As the pencil roving is drafted out to be twisted into yarn it is guided around the flyer a couple of times before it winds onto the bobbin. This will make for a smoother worsted yarn as it will help “tuck in” any loose fibres.

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The yarn is twisted around the flyer before it goes onto the bobbin.

When spinning woollen yarns, where the fibres are more jumbled up, the spinning machine has a ring, rather than a flyer. You can see the woollen spinning preparation beautifully explained in the following Wovember blog post with the ring spinner here.

If you’re curious about hand combing at home, then I can highly recommend the following set of videos found here (link to the first of four videos.)

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Last Friday I jumped at the chance to accompany my friend Sue to visit Diamond Fibres, a small independent spinning mill specialising in worsted spinning for knitting yarns.

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The Diamond Fibres Mill at Diamond Farm

After Wovember2012, I had a greater understanding of how fleece gets turned into yarn, but to see a mill for real was an unexpected pleasure. The mill is owned by Roger, who used to work in The City, but he quit in the 1980s to start the mill.

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Roger tweaking the spinner

There’s a lot to do  before you get yarn, and Roger does it all at his farm: fleece sorting, scouring, carding, combing, spinning, and skeining. It would probably take me a few visits to see all the machines working, as they’re not all continuously in use. Here’s an account of the process, as I remember it from the overload of information Roger gave me.

He stores his fleeces and does the sorting in an the oldest building at Diamond Farm: an old barn, probably dating back to the 14th century.

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The old barn where Roger stores and sorts his fleece

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the beams and rafters of the old barn

Once the fleeces have been sorted and graded, the wool gets scoured to remove dirt, suint and lanolin. This is necessary to ensure a high quality yarn. If there’s lanolin or or sticky stuff in the wool, then this gets transferred to the equipment, and soon fibres will start to cling to it, messing up the intermediate steps in the processing.

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Wensleydale wool drying, there’s approximately 17kg of wool on the drying table.

Once the wool is picked, it gets carded to loosen up the fibre mass. The carding machine is just a big version of a drum carder:

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Sue and Gill are picking wool to feed into the carder

After the carding, the wool needs to be gilled: the jumbled up fibres get disentangled and gradually more lined up; if I understand it correctly, this produces sliver. Unfortunately the gilling machine was not in use, but you can see some pictures of it here.

The sliver then gets combed, which is done rather differently than when doing it by hand.

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Roger explaining the finer points of combing

The sliver is fed into the combing machine at the back, 16 strands at a time.

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the sliver feed seen through the opened hatch of the comber

These slivers then get combed by a top comb and a bottom comb.

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the top comb

The bottom comb was difficult to photograph, but it consists of a roller, with rows of tines on it, each row of tines smaller than the previous one. When the sliver has been combed, you get combed top. The combed top gets put onto huge bobbins. From there on, the spinning process itself starts. The combed top gets drafted into pencil roving.

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the machine that makes pencil roving from combed top

The bobbins with pencil roving are moved to the spinning machine, where the roving gets pulled through a series of rollers. Below you can see Blue Faced Leicester on the large bobbins.

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Bobbins with pencil rovings are drafted by the rollers.

The rollers perform the same action as a handspinner does with drafting and feeding the fibre into the yarn. Twist enters the roving by means of a flyer, just like a spinning wheel. To facilitate the yarn being wound onto the bobbin, the bobbins rest on felt discs, which slow down the bobbin’s speed relative to its flyer:

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Bobbins and flyers threaded up

If the bobbin rotates too fast, the yarn can break, so some bobbins need to be kept in check by means of an additional brake. You can see them in the picture above. They’re the pieces of felt clamped into place right next to the naughty bobbins. Although the bobbins with the single yarn spin around at an amazing speed, can you imagine that the large bobbins with the pencil roving will take a whole three days of spinning before they’re empty?

Seeing that Roger has a flock of around 110 Romney sheep, it won’t surprise you to hear that Romney longwool is his favourite fibre to spin. It has a nice lustre, it’s strong, and yet soft enough for a jumper; a good all-rounder.

Knowingly and unknowingly I have been knitting with yarns spun up by Diamond Fibres. It turns out that the Wensleydale I used to knit a hat from, as reported during Wovember2012, was spun by Roger.

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Deepest Darkest Romney teamed with my handspun Possibly Romney from the M25 yarn

The picture above shows my Romney and handspun combination jumper I’m working on. Alas, it’s on hold right now as I have a number of commissions to complete before I can return to personal projects.

And you, too, can get your hands on some yarn made with care, showing off all the good qualities of Romney fleece, spun up by a Master Spinner. Prick Your Finger sell his DK weight Romney in deepest darkest brown, and also a beautiful steely grey.

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Post-script added on 18 August 2013: I have been back to Diamond Fibres, and got a few of the finer points clarified. You can read about it here.

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