Blue and Black Yarn

Way back in 2020 I got some lovely, lustrous Romney fleece from the Richardsons in Phillipston, MA. Yes, that 2020.

I dyed a lot of it blue with woad.

When I post photos of my dyeing results, sometimes people ask me, “What are you going to do with it?” I’m tempted to say, “Do? What do you mean? It’s done!” Making color is fun and satisfying all by itself. But, yes, I do aspire to spin yarn and ultimately weave cloth with it. This blog post is about some yarn that I have spun!

Over the years I have posted many images of woad vats on this blog. So I will skip the dyeing process in this post, and stick to the yarn production process. Here’s how it happened:

In 2021 I got a picture in my mind of a yarn that combined various shades of woad blue and black alpaca. I was inspired by some lovely silvery gray yarn from New York Textile Lab which is 50% Romney 50% alpaca. It’s a luxurious yarn that embodies the best of both fibers. I, too, was hoping to combine the sheen and lustre of Romney with the softness and silkiness of alpaca.

The black alpaca roving is from Snowfield Alpacas in New Hampshire, purchased at the Fiber Festival of New England. When?  A long time ago. We don’t know how long.

I spun a teensy sample with a drop spindle to see what it might look like, and I loved it:

I wanted to make a significant amount of yarn so I could weave enough yardage to sew into “something.” That’s as far as I’ve gotten with my vision of the finished product. I know a lot of people spin with a specific project in mind, but welcome to my process.

I weighed out one pound of woad-blue locks, thinking at first that my blend would be 50/50 and I would end up with 2lbs. prepared fiber.

I flick carded the locks to remove any remaining vegetable matter (though the fleeces were really clean to begin with) and to combine various shades of blue. Here are a few locks lined up and ready to flick:

Here’s the little bundle all fluffed up:

And here’s one with lighter shades of blue:

What are those white areas? When I dye locks in a woad vat, sometimes the dye doesn’t penetrate all the way through the lock. This is especially true near the cut-end of the locks where it’s denser. It’s even more true when I’m exhausting the vat and the locks are slurping up the last bits of color.

Then I ran the locks through a drum carder to further blend the different shades of blue. Here’s the set up one fine day in July of 2021. Our cat Sammy has inspected everything. Having detected no danger, she’s relaxing and grooming.

I gradually carded all the fleece into little batts.

Here’s a basketful of batts. The blue in this image is a little more Smurfy than real life, but you get the idea:

This image shows the sheen much better. You can also see that there’s a lot of color variation still, despite all the blending:

And here’s a view from the cute, curly end of a rolled up mini-batt:

I split the wool batts and carded them again with the black alpaca roving. I have a mini-carder, and each blended batt was about one ounce.

The first 50/50 blue-and-black batt was deep, dark, and dramatic, but I wanted more sparkle from the blue. So, I sampled some more and settled on a ratio of 70% wool and 30% alpaca. Which meant that I needed to card more wool get 2lbs blended fiber. Here’s the 70/30 blend:

I really love the contrast of the black and bright blue in the spun yarn, as well as the more uniformly blended dark-blue areas:

Because the alpaca and the wool are not consistently blended, I got worried about leaving the yarn as singles for weaving. The areas that are all-alpaca are fluffier and the staple length is much shorter. I worried about how the different textures would behave. So I plied it. My future self may or may not thank me, but what’s done is done. Here are the two skeins I’ve spun and plied thus far:

My present-day self is very happy. I absolutely love how it looks and feels. These two skeins together weigh about 8 oz. so I am about halfway through the fiber I prepared. Which is totally fine because it’s really fun to spin!

Spinning Flax

Last week was April vacation, which meant I had more free time than usual to do fun things. Last Tuesday I was thrilled to spend about four hours with Lisa Bertoldi getting some instruction in spinning flax. You might think, with all the flaxy things I do, that I would already be good at spinning flax. Not yet. It has been a goal for me for many years, but recently it has made it to the top of my “urgent” list. Urgency plus vacation days equals actually devoting time to it! Thanks to Lisa, I am quite a bit better at spinning flax now. (12/30/2023 Edited:  Lisa no longer has a website but you can read more about her on the Working Weavers Studio Trail website)

Here is the strick of flax spread out on the table. I am getting the fiber ready to dress the distaff. You can see the distaff on the left:

Continue reading “Spinning Flax”

Handspun Louet Flax Top

Thanks to more snow days than usual this winter, I have finally finished spinning up a fiber preparation I bought years ago, 8 ounces of Louet bleached flax top. I have not spent much time on spinning in recent years, hence the delay. My plan was to experiment with wet-spinning and dry-spinning the fiber, to see if it made a significant difference in the yarn. I think it did. Continue reading “Handspun Louet Flax Top”

Perchta and Flax Burning

I have been having a hard time wrapping up this thread because the more I read, the more complicated this whole subject becomes. I was initially annoyed by the idea of wanton flax-destruction on St. Distaff’s Day or Rock Day (a rock is a distaff). Then I was intrigued by the relationship between St. Distaff’s Day/Rock Day and Plough Monday, which is the following day. Known by these names, these two traditions appear to be mostly English. However, there are plenty of similarities to other holidays in other parts of Europe that are celebrated around the same time. Then I became intrigued by the holidays that are celebrated the night before St. Distaff’s Day. To sum up, there were theatrical antics on Twelfth Night/Perchtenlaufen, then antics on Rock Day, then more theatrical antics on Plough Day. The dates of these holidays are January 5th, 6th, and 7th, respectively. If everyone had to celebrate each of these holidays, we’d all have to spend several sleepless nights and exhausting days parading around in the snow in fantastic costumes, running or getting chased, making a lot of noise, getting wet and/or being set of fire. Phew. I can hardly get out of bed this time of year. The timing struck me as more than co-incidental. These holidays seem to be related, but how? Continue reading “Perchta and Flax Burning”

Possible Rock Day Antecedents

medieval-spinners3To begin, I must start with a spelling comment. I have been spelling Rock Day “r-o-c-k but it is often and perhaps more correctly spelled r-o-c with no “k”. A German-language thing maybe? Not being a linguist nor a German speaker, I humbly accept critical comments on this issue. I cannot endorse one spelling versus another for any reasons other than personal: I like r-o-c-k because it is more punk rock! Roc conjures images of a ginormous killer bird, which on second thought I suppose is badass in its own way. So, either way, I don’t mind.

To quickly sum up earlier posts: celebrated on the day after Epiphany (the twelfth day of Christmas), Rock Day or St. Distaff’s Day marked the return of spinners to their spinning after the mid-winter holiday hiatus. Festivities were marked with the burning of flax by the ploughboys, and the dousing of the fires–and of the ploughboys–by the spinners.

Historically in Europe, spinning was prohibited on certain days or during certain times of day. The Twelve Days of Christmas were not the only days during which spinning was banned  (12/24/2023 I tried to edit this link to bring you to the search results for the term “spinning,” but I’m not sure that helps. Below, I deleted the links to Davidson’s books on Googlebooks because they were clunky to navigate. Check out the book from the library, instead!) Depending on the region and the time period, these prohibitions were imposed by goddesses, hefty folklore figures, or the church.

In general, I subscribe to a view of history that accepts this hypothesis: many traditions which came to be associated with powerful folklore figures or Christian saints in relatively recent times were, during more ancient times, the province of goddesses and gods. In the same way that geological principles of continuity help us understand how layers of the earth were created, despite significant disruptions, I like to think that continuity of human traditions through time gives us glimpses to the past, despite the disruptions of history. On the other hand, history is a tricky thing. Knowing who truly might have done what, when, where, how, and (most importantly) why is boggling in its distance and inaccessibility, yet so compelling. I try to find sources and ideas that seem reasonable, to question what seems too thin, and scrutinize what seems prejudiced. Again, I humbly accept informed critiques. Nevertheless, here are my two cents.

In Celtic and Germanic regions of Europe, according to Hilda Ellis Davidson (The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe and Roles of the Northern Goddess), there were many spinning prohibitions. In Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, two figures known by various names including Holda or Holle and Perchta or Berta, would punish spinners who worked on Saturday evenings, Sundays, or the evenings of a number of other festivals. Spinning at night was also prohibited. In the northern latitudes, it is hard to avoid doing anything after dark in the middle of winter, so an extended period of abstinence around midwinter makes sense. Holda or Perchta would punish transgressors by setting fire to their distaffs, tangling or breaking their yarn, and other terrible things. These figures also punished lazy or careless spinners no matter when they were spinning, and rewarded diligent ones. Despite their punitive aspects, these figures were also protective and beneficent.

Also according to Davidson, in Blekinge, a region of Sweden, spinning was not allowed on Thursdays because the goddess Frigg was spinning on Thursdays. Apparently there is only so much spinning the world can handle on a given day. This makes a certain sense, especially if goddesses were spinning Z and humans were spinning S. Ha! The earth might come to a standstill. “Z” is used to describe the twist in yarn spun with the wheel turning clockwise. “S” describes the twist in yarns spun counterclockwise. Here’s a picture:

Davidson also notes that in Latvia, spinning, knitting, and chopping wood were prohibited on Thursday evenings, thanks to a goddess named Laima.

Davidson comments that even though the festivals of these beings (which, by the way, included dietary stipulations including dumplings and fish on Berchta’s holiday) all took place in mid-winter, she disagrees with Lotte Motz that they represented an earlier Germanic winter goddess. Spinning is not confined to winter and their powers extended beyond the winter season. However, I am intrigued by the association between Berchtentag and the feast of the Epiphany in the Wikipedia article about Perchta (see link above). Someone with more linguistic knowledge than me will have to figure out if that association–which suggests that these holidays may be linked– is well-founded or not.

In Ireland, spinning was forbidden on February 1st, the feast of St. Brigid and also the holiday Imbolg or Imbolc. February 1st was also the first day of ploughing to prepare the fields for spring planting, according to Pamela Berger in The Goddess Obscured. More on that, and on the possible relationship between spinning female characters and processional ploughs and carts, when I finally get to Plough Day.





Rock Day Part Two

OK, back to the main topic of research: St. Distaff’s Day a.k.a Rock Day. What was it, when was it, and why was it so important? And was it ever linked with quasars? No, just kidding! It was actually linked with Plough Day.

Here’s the short form: During the Twelve Days of Christmas, women ceased their spinning labors (and probably increased their cooking labors, to everybody’s satisfaction). When the Christmas celebrations were over, the day that spinning commenced once again was acknowledged with traditional “pranks”. Apparently, one of the principal forms of entertainment was that the ploughboys (who did not have to go back to work until Plough Day or Plough Monday, which was either the next day or a fortnight later, depending on what you read) would light the spinners’ flax on fire. Continue reading “Rock Day Part Two”

Rock Day

A few days ago someone on the Yahoo Flax and Linen group sent an announcement about the celebration of St. Distaff’s Day, or Rock Day, at the Westford Museum in Westford, MA on Sunday January 6th.  I meant to post about it before the event actually happened, but then I had to do some research and go on some tangents, and that took a few days.

Even though I am very interested in old European traditions regarding agriculture and textiles, I had never heard of St. Distaff’s Day or Rock Day by those specific names before. However, I had read about prohibitions against spinning on certain holidays, so, I figured they were probably related. It was time to go into research mode. Continue reading “Rock Day”