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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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