Turning a sow’s ear into a silk purse. I mean, a slipper.

This week’s question is whether I can turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse slipper.

I have been the lucky recipient of a lot of free fleece since I took up spinning.  It all started with some filthy Gotland fleece straight from the sheep’s back that my Dad gave me.  He had provided the antique engine that was running the shearing plant in a demonstration of hand shearing at a local show.  Because he knew I wanted to learn to spin, he brought home a few handfuls.   He is a great enabler!  It was rough and filthy, but I spun it on my first spindle and was grateful.  Admittedly, Dad said there was a handspinner at the show and he had spoken to her about it: she advised doing me a favour and not bringing that fleece home to me, but naturally, he didn’t listen!  And I was glad.  I didn’t know anywhere I could get fleece then.

Next, I was given several bags of Dorper fleece by friends who were keeping Dorpers as meat sheep.  I didn’t understand the meaning of ‘meat sheep’ in the context of fleece at that stage.   Dorpers shed their fleece rather than needing to be shorn when they are pure bred, which might have been a clue to (lack of) spinnability for a more knowledgeable person, too!  I dyed it, I spun it, I carded it… oh my goodness. It was the beginning of my fleece preparation journey and it was a very challenging start.  Months later the woman who had lent me her carder said when she saw what I was working with, she was just overcome to think I would even try to spin that fleece!  She didn’t offer me her opinion at the time, though, and it was a long time before I decided that I could, perhaps, compost the rest as my struggles were not only about my lack of skill but also about the state of the fleece.

Needless to say I have also received fleece that has spent lengthy periods in a shed and bred an overwhelming moth population.  Happily, I had said fleece in a plastic tub with a lid.

So… I have had some personal experience of the possibility that people who give the gift of fleece don’t have the judgment necessary to decide whether what they have handed over is worth spinning.   I have to be the one to decide whether the fact that I could turn that into yarn given enough time and effort, is a sufficient reason to do it.  I think I have proved to myself that I can spin almost anything–if I could spin those fleeces as a beginner!

I went to a couple of workshops on fibre preparation (washing, combing and using hackles) at the recent Majacraft Magic camp at Lake Dewar outside Melbourne, and came home ready to tackle some of my current fibre preparation challenges.  I had reached some new conclusions about why I find getting fleece clean difficult sometimes.  1. our hot water tap doesn’t give very hot water, and can’t be adjusted.  Boiling the kettle repeatedly is boring, as well as slow, after a while! 2. I can be more slapdash than is ideal for the task. 3. Most of the fleece I currently have is Polwarth, more gifts from a couple of pet sheep in the hills.  This is a fine and greasy fleece, among the more challenging to clean.  4. I always hope to be able to wash a bigger batch of fleece than is desirable for optimal results.

Anyway… having tried washing some more gifted alpaca fleece and some more gifted Polwarth, and using careful observation of how it behaves with flicking, combing and carding, I have decided the following.  1. The specific Polwarth fleece I am currently working on has tips that are weather damaged.  When I flick card them, they pull right off.  Is it any wonder that these paler tips appear as nepps in the batt when I card the same fleece? The other fleeces I have had from the same sheep don’t have these difficulties. The poor sheep must have had a tough year…

2. That same fleece has a break in it, so the longer locks are giving way under the tension involved in carding, again leading to less than optimal batts.  3. The alpaca is super short (happily, I have now worked with high quality alpaca and no longer assume this s just the way alpaca comes).  It has not really been skirted.  Most of it pulls onto the licker-in (the small drum on the drum carder) when carded. Yes, from the very start, and not only when the large drum is full.

4.That alpaca has big clumps of guard hair and has been shorn without consideration to the future spinner.  Hopefully the shearer was thinking of the animal’s welfare in taking so many passes!

In short, these are not the highest quality fleeces possible and they would present challenges to anyone preparing them for spinning.  No matter how much time I spend I may not be able to turn these sow’s ears into the proverbial silk purses.  I have decided, instead, to attempt to turn them into felted slippers.  I am carding them together as a blend, spinning them up without too much fuss and very fat (good practice) and my ultimate plan is to knit slippers which will be felted and perhaps dyed.  Shazam!  Their less than ideal qualities will no longer be of importance.  I hope!

Here are my first few balls, and a slipper with some polwarth content and some eucalyptus dyed wool content to give me hope…


Filed under Fibre preparation, Knitting, Spinning, Uncategorized

4 responses to “Turning a sow’s ear into a silk purse. I mean, a slipper.

  1. Deb

    That looks like nice fat wool you’ve spun – do you use this in single strand for your slippers (ie 16-20 ply??). Do you think it would be okay to spin singles for slippers or do you need the two ply for durability?


  2. Thanks, Deb! The pattern calls for 2 strands of 10 ply, and this is definitiely thicker than 10 ply, as you’ve said. I am considering pairing it with a second strand that is thinner and could give some colour variation. And, I’m also considering using two strands of the big, fat wool and ending up with some very sturdy slippers. I suspect a singles would do the job here because the slippers will be felted. Good point!


  3. Kay

    Thankyou so much for your wealth of information. I’m looking for something to do in retirement and I have access to an unending amount of free Dorper wool/hair and i love challenges and strive to turn “can’t” into “can”.
    At the moment, i want to learn if Dorper hair can be successfully spun, it doesn’t matter how coarse it is as for what I want it for the coarse the better. Any hints on how to wash, spin all of this beautiful “fleece” would be so much appreciated.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve spun Dorper. It can certainly be done! I suggest starting with whatever part of the fleece looks best to you. I would wash it if you can, and fleece washing advice is all over the WWW. It’s not a fleece that felts too readily, so don’t be anxious, give it a go. Flick card it if it’s full of grass and stuff, card it if you can access a drum carder, and then go wild spinning it. Experiment until you figure out how you like it.


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