Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Preparing and Spinning Dog Hair - Spinning Chiengora

As a preface, this blog post has been several months in the making and is one of my longer blog posts.  I talk about my experiments, mistakes and learning process in perfecting my technique for spinning chiengora.  If you’re just a little bit curious about how to spin dog hair, I've made a short video that summarises my final, start to finish process for spinning dog hair here - 

If you’d like to learn more, read on...

Spinning Chiengora

As a spinner, I love trying out new or unusual fibres, and one fibre I've been very intrigued by is dog hair or chiengora (so-called because of its similarity in appearance and texture to angora).   There are usually one of three reactions when someone mentions spinning dog hair.  People are either repulsed at the thought of wearing something that might smell of wet dog, they just think it’s extremely weird, or they love the idea of having a memento that is made purely out of the fur of their beloved pet.

Spinning dog hair is certainly not a recent fad.  Items dating back to pre-historic Scandinavia were found to be made from dog hair, and dogs were the main providers of protein fibres to the Native American Navajos before sheep were introduced to the continent.

The best dogs for providing fibre for spinning are long-haired, double-coated dogs that have definite shedding phases, when they primarily shed their undercoat.  Anyone that has ever owned a double-coated dog knows that underneath the stiff, wiry guard hairs, lie much softer, finer, downy undercoat hairs.  It's these finer, hidden hairs that are just perfect for spinning into a luxurious yarn.  If you had the dog, the opportunity and the skill, why would you not turn the shed hair into an extremely warm, luxurious yarn, instead of throwing it away?

Popular dogs for spinning into yarn are:-

This is actually my second attempt at writing a blog post about my experience spinning dog hair, but my original post started to turn into more of a - how not to harvest dog hair - that I decided to wait until an opportunity to spin a better source of chiengora fibre arose.

If you're looking to spin your own dog's hair, I would highly recommend taking a look at a forum on Ravelry called - "Spinning Dog Fiber - aka Spinnin' Chien."  I picked up a lot of tips on fibre preparation there and a lot of the information I'm sharing here came from the extremely helpful forum members there.

Tips for harvesting and storing dog hair

Dog hair for spinning should always come from brushings rather than clippings.  Ideally, you just want to spin the finer undercoat, so clippings will always contain a lot more guard hairs.  Cut ends can also add to the prickly nature of the yarn.  If your dog sheds once or twice a year then the best undercoat fibres are brushed out at the beginning of the shedding, as fewer guard hairs are dropped at this stage.  Don't be afraid to be selective about which brushings you keep and which you discard.  It's much better to have a small amount of luxurious yarn than a large amount of mediocre, itchy yarn.

Unfortunately, I don't have a dog myself, but many double-coated dog owners tell me that you get varying qualities of hair from different parts of the dog.  Like a sheep or alpaca, you get much softer, finer hair from the back, neck and sides.  The legs, tail and stomach yield shorter or coarser hair and so it's better to discard these hairs if you want a more luxurious, wearable yarn.

Storing the fibres well is crucial.  Make sure that whatever you keep the hair in is breathable - like a paper bag, cardboard box or old pillowcase.   Try not to pack it in too tightly as this will increase the risk of it all matting together.


My first (disappointing) attempt at spinning dog hair

Five years ago, we were at a friends' house and I was admiring their pet cockapoo.  I flippantly said that I would love to spin its fur - knowing nothing about spinning dog hair at the time.  Well, a year later they confessed that they'd been saving all of their dog's hair - in the hope that I would spin some cockapoo yarn for their 13-year-old daughter to knit with.

Cockapoo image from Wikipedia

Bless them, they'd been diligently putting all the hair into little black dog-poo-bags and knotting them tightly when they were full.  They'd tried to get as much as possible into the plastic bags to save space, so the hair was really well packed in.

Having read a lot more about spinning dog hair since, I now know that keeping dog hair packed into a plastic bag for long periods of time is really not ideal as the hair can sweat and start to matt over time.  Trust me, unwashed-year-old dog hair, kept in a plastic bag is particularly smelly!

I also don't think that a cockapoo is the ideal dog for spinning.  It's a cross between a cocker spaniel and a poodle and any dog crossed with a poodle is quite likely to be low shedding and single coated, so I was really not off to a good start.

Well, I washed it, carded it and spun a knittable yarn, but it was quite clear that any yarn I produced was definitely going to be too itchy to wear.  It was just too full of guard hairs and clipped ends that it felt more like string than yarn.

I spun enough for our friends' daughter to knit a Christmas stocking for their dog and then disposed of the remaining dog hair as quickly as possible...


My experience spinning Malamute

Last year, a local lady posted on Ravelry, asking if anyone would be willing to spin some long-haired malamute fibre for her.  After my failed attempt a few years ago, I really wanted to redeem myself, so I offered to spin a hundred grams or so for her - purely as a learning experience and to add a little variety to my own yarn stash.  I told her to save just the brushings and to keep it stored in a breathable container.  I now know that I should have also asked her to be a bit more selective about the fibres that she saved - but that was another lesson I learned!

Well, she turned up at my door with two pillowcases full of soft, malamute hair.  There were probably 500 grams in there - all from one season's shedding!

As you can see, there is a real mixture of fibres in there.  Just touching it, I could feel that it was so much softer than the cockapoo hair I'd spun previously, but at first glance you can see that there are also a lot of guard hairs in there.

Underhairs come in a variety of shades and they're frequently a slightly different shade to the protective guard hairs.  At first glance, it looked like these malamute guard hairs were mostly black, or white with black tips.  I later learned that there were also a lot of white guard hairs in there as well.

Sorting and washing the Malamute fibre

I spent a couple of days sorting the dog fibres.  I pulled out the darkest sections as these contained the most guard hairs.  I also removed the shorter, coarser hairs, and sections that were overly matted or full of dander as these were not going to be pleasant to spin.  I must admit to being quite ruthless, but I quickly learned (from colour, appearance and texture) which fibres were going to be the softest.  

I'm sure if I was a dog owner as well as a spinner, this process would be much easier as the fibres would be more efficiently sorted at the grooming stage.  I also now know that it would be much better to save just the softer hairs from the first brushings - when the dog first begins to shed - as these contain fewer guard hairs.

The malamute that donated the hair must have been very well looked after, as the hair was quite clean and smelled only slightly 'doggy'.   I decided, however, to wash it anyway. 

Opening up the fibres as I went, I placed the lighter sections of fibre in a large delicates laundry bag, ready to be soaked.  

I was intrigued to see how well 'Soak', my favourite wool and delicates washing liquid, would clean the malamute fibres.  Soak isn't necessarily recommended for washing pre-spun fibres, but I wanted to minimise agitation of the malamute - which could cause felting, so I thought it was worth a try.

I made this animated gif to show just how much dirt came out of what I thought was pretty clean dog hair after three. thirty minute soaks and one rinse.

This is the wet malamute fibres after they've been for a gentle spin in my washing machine at 400rpm for 15 minutes to remove a lot of the excess water.  I love how you can see the bright whites and soft beiges more clearly now in the underhair.

It's winter here in the UK and so I hung my bag of wet malamute fibres on a radiator, periodically checking it and fluffing the fibres out.  It took about two days to completely dry.  It hadn't been particularly dirty to start with, but now there wasn't the remotest smell of dogginess.

A quite serendipitous thing happened too.  As the underhairs are so fine and smooth, they became statically charged as they became dryer and dryer.

I noticed that the very thickest guard hairs had started to fall out of the laundry bag of their own accord. These are just a few that I picked up off the bathroom floor.  You can see here that there are a lot more white guard hairs in there than I anticipated.

Shaking the bag repeatedly encouraged a lot more of the thicker guard hairs to either fall out of the laundry bag or just poke out, allowing me to remove them with a sticky lint roller.

These are all of the sticky roller sheets I used on the outside of the laundry bag.

Removing even more guard hairs

When I first started reading the Spinnin' Chien forum, one member described a process of removing the guard hairs by placing the dog hair in a delicates laundry bag and putting them in the dryer with some pieces of foam and fleece.  Initially, I thought this sounded quite risky and possibly fool-hardy, but as I could still see quite a lot of guard hairs amongst the fine downy malamute fibres I decided to take the risk.

I keep guinea pigs, so I have a couple of densely woven laundry bags designed for washing guinea pig fleeces in to stop the hay and hair from clogging the washing machine.  I put my delicates bag full of malamute fibres in my pet laundry bag and stuffed it full of foam offcuts.

I zipped it up, crossed my fingers and put it in my dryer for 30 minutes on a gentle heat cycle.

This is what the inside of the pet hair bag looked like when I removed it from the dryer.  The inside, the foam pieces, and the delicates bag were all covered in guard hairs!

I spent a good hour or so with my sticky roller, removing the guard hairs from the inside of the pet bag, the foam pieces and the outside of the delicates laundry bag.

Thankfully the malamute fibres hadn't felted in the dryer and I had the softest mound of malamute fibres with just a few finer guard hairs left in.

Unfortunately, at this stage it was very difficult to handle as it was so full of static charge that it wanted to cling to everything in sight!

A quick spritz over the surface and then a gentle mixing with detangling spray dissipated the static charge straight away.  It also made the fibres smell lovely!

Spinning Malamute

A lot of spinners of chiengora insist that the dog hairs need to be at least 1 and a half inches long.  Most dog hair doesn't have the same crimp as wool, it's also slippier and so the shorter fibres have a tendency to shed from the yarn.  It's not unusual for chiengora spinners to blend the dog hair with wool or alpaca to make it easier to spin, with less shedding, but the purist in me wanted to spin 100% malamute.

Looking through my malamute fibres, I noticed a wide range of staple lengths and textures.  Some were as long as three and a half inches, but most of them were between one and a half and two and a half inches.  I knew that I was going to have to spin a much tighter yarn than I was used to, to ensure that the fibres held together well.

In my first attempt at spinning malamute, I tried to hand card the hair.  Unfortunately the shorter, fluffier fibres rolled themselves into little neps, I eventually gave up on carding the dog hair and just fluffed it up and spun it from the cloud.  

A cloud of malamute fibre

After consulting the members of the Spinnin' Chien forum, I was advised that my wool carders really weren't suitable for dog hair, and experienced chiengora spinners use cotton carders that have much finer, more densely spaced teeth.

This was the first malamute yarn I spun. It's a 2ply, spun from the cloud.

I was relatively pleased with it, but you can see that there are an awful lot of slubs in there, and as it's spun from the cloud, it's quite untidy and very much a woolen-spun yarn.  I use an e-spinner, which doesn't really lend itself well to the stop-start and varying speeds required when spinning from the cloud, so next, I decided to attempt a more worsted-style fibre preparation.

I wasn't about to invest in expensive equipment for what may be a one-off project, so I decided to try and build my own simple hackle out of inexpensive dog combs and a table clamp that I've had for decades.

I managed to find three of these combination dog combs at Pets at Home.  They were half price at £4.75 each.  They have two densities of tines and the more closely spaced teeth are perfect for preparing my fine malamute fibres.

I taped them together with double-sided sticky tape and then clamped them in my tabletop clamp with the finer teeth sticking out.

I made a little 2 minute video to show my technique for aligning my malamute fibres to make a kind of lightweight top.  Basically, I teased and opened up the malamute fibres, drafting them open with my right hand and then lowering them onto the dog combs with the more open fibres to the right of the teeth.  Once my dog comb was half full, I carefully drafted out the fibres into a top, discarding the shortest and most knotted fibres that remained on the comb at the end.  I then halved the length of fibres a couple of times so that I had a mix of long and short fibres on top of each other and then I drafted the four lengths into one length of fibres.

Here are my sweet little nests of malamute fibre that are so much easier to spin on my Hansen Minispinner as they require far less effort to spin at a constant speed.  There are still quite a few little neps in there, but you can see the fibres are now much more aligned.

Spinning my prepared malamute fibre was so far more relaxing after it had been drafted out.  I spun a high twist, fine single with the intention of chain plying it later.

Please take a look at my video on pre-chain plying singles - 

Before plying I left my singles to rest for several days for the twist to relax a little so that it was easier to manage.

Here are the first two malamute yarns that I spun.  The top one is the very first yarn that I spun.  It's a two-ply and was spun from the cloud.  The bottom one is chain plied and was spun from drafted, combed fibres, prepared on my home made hackle.

I love how much more definition the lower one has and I'm sure it would be much more comfortable to wear, having fewer guard hairs and less of a halo.

I did actually spin a third yarn (the first in this picture) where I pulled out every guard hair by hand, but that was just too ridiculously labour intensive.  I would not recommend it!

As a thank you to the dog owner that provided me with the malamute hair, I knitted these little hearts that she could keep as a memento - along with enough yarn for her to knit herself some wrist-warmers or a hat.

I've still got a lot of malamute left to spin for myself - maybe I'll try dyeing some next year. Chiengora is 80% warmer than sheep's wool so it'll be perfect for next winter's accessories!

This blog post contains Amazon affiliate links to similar products that I purchased myself to prepare and spin the chiengora yarn. If you click through and purchase anything, I may receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.


Please be sweet and share the love. Leave a comment, like my Facebook page for regular updates or follow me on Pinterest,  Blogovin' or Instagram

Friday, March 15, 2019

How to Make Waterproof Guinea Pig Fleece Bedding

Two years ago we introduced a couple of sweet guinea pigs into our little family and I blogged about the corner guinea pig cage that I'd built for them.  They still live very happily in the corner of our living room and almost everyone that sees them comments on what an impressive habitat they have.

I made waterproof fleece cage liners for our guinea pigs at the end of 2016, and after two years, those original cage liners have sadly reached the end of their lifespan - and so it's time to make some more.  (Unfortunately, the waterproof backing degrades over time - especially in the areas that get more frequently used as a toilet.)  I was really pleased with how they turned out - both functionally and aesthetically, so when it came time to make more I thought I'd write a tutorial.

If you are unfamiliar with the concept of using waterproof fleece liners in a guinea pigs' cage, I would compare it to using washable nappies instead of disposable ones, but significantly easier!  Like washable nappies, there is a polyester fleece surface that wicks the urine away from the guinea pigs' feet, an inner cotton toweling core that absorbs the wetness, and a waterproof backing that prevents the urine from transferring onto the bottom of the cage.

I love the look of waterproof fleece liners and I feel they fit in so much better in a living room setting than traditional alternatives.  Admittedly, they are probably more work than sawdust, Fitch, Megazorb, Carefresh or other disposable absorbent substrates, but fleece has to be softer and more comfortable for them to sleep on.  If you look around, you can find fleece to fit in with the colour scheme of your living room and, over the course of a couple of years, it saves quite a bit of money too.  (Mine would have actually lasted longer if they hadn't been asymmetrical, as I would have been able to rotate them.)

Materials needed to make waterproof fleece guinea pig cage liners.

 These supplies should be enough to make two full-sized liners for my 90cm x 130cm cage.  I'm also hoping that I'll be able to salvage parts of my original cage liners to make a few house liners that can be brushed down and removed between full clean outs.

  • Extra large 230cm x 255cm throw from Primark. (After trying a few fleeces I've found this one to be excellent for easily brushing down and removing hairs and hay, as it's so silky.)
  • Microfibre bathmat from Wilkos. (This will go under the main bottom house, one corner of which often gets used as a toilet.  Our guinea pigs also like to sleep on this mat in front of the house.)
  • Cotton towels to go inside the cage liners to absorb any urine.  The Haren from Ikea is one of the biggest towels I could find.
  • Waterproof, cotton toweling mattress protector.  The Superking Gokart from Ikea will be big enough for me to get a couple of liners out of and possibly some small house mats too.
  • I'm going to be repurposing the usable parts of my old cage liners to make house mats.  If you are starting from scratch, you will need another towel and another waterproof toweling mattress protector to make removable house liners.
  • Fabric Scissors
  • Pins
  • Metre ruler
  • Fabric pen
  • Sewing machine
  • Sewing thread.
  • Heavy duty sewing machine needle.  I used a size 120/20

How to make Waterproof Guinea Pig Bedding

The most important step, before you start cutting out your fabrics is to wash everything, at least three times.  Wash and dry them at as high a temperature as the fabrics will stand without damaging them.  You need to do this for two reasons  - to remove any oils that might have been added during manufacture, which will reduce the absorbency of your fleece, but also to encourage your fabrics to shrink.  If they are going to shrink, it is much better that they shrink now rather than when you've made your cage liners.

Once all of your fabrics are dry, you need to trim away any edgings that will prevent your materials from laying flat - making it difficult to cut them out.

Cut off the elasticated skirt from around the waterproof, cotton toweling mattress protector.

Cut off the edging from around the towel.

Cut off the edging from around the fleece blanket.

When I made my cage, I also made a template of the base out of Proplex for future use.  I laid this template on top of the towels and marked 5cm all the way around it.  This gave me a 2cm seam allowance, plus a little extra to allow for possible shrinkage.  Making it a little larger, also makes it a lot easier to fit on clean out days.

Once I'd marked on my pattern, I pinned the two towel pieces together and then cut them out.

I laid one of the towel pieces on top of my waterproof mattress protector and fleece, right side up.  The mattress protector was cut out toweling side up (shiny side down) and the fleece was cut out right side up.  My cage is asymmetrical and so the arrangement of fabrics is very important.  If your cage is a rectangle, then you don't need to worry about which way your fabrics are facing when you cut them out.

Once your three fabric pieces are cut out, you need to pin them together, as in the photo above, with the towel on the bottom, followed by the waterproof mattress protector, facing shiny side up and the fleece with the right side facing down.

With a 2cm seam allowance, sew all the way around your three fabrics, leaving a 30 to the 40cm gap for turning it the right way round.  I made sure that the opening was placed on a part of the liners that wouldn't be seen ie. under the houses and hay/litter tray.

Cut the corners off at 45 degrees.

Turn the cage liner the right way round, making sure that the toweling is sandwiched between the fleece top and the waterproof base.

Pin and then stitch the opening closed a few mm from the edge.  There you have one finished waterproof guinea pig cage liner!

Making a Large Heavy duty Microfibre House Mat

I love our guinea pigs, but they do require quite a bit of regular cleaning.  Over the last couple of years, I've strived to find ways of reducing that maintenance as much as possible, while still giving them a hygienic and clean living environment.  One of the main methods I use to keep them clean between weekly full clean outs is to put separate waterproof mats at the bases of their main sleeping and resting areas.  That way they can be brushed down, or replaced if necessary, with clean ones without having to empty the whole cage.

Our guinea pigs have a litter and hay tray, which they mostly use as a toilet, but they also like to use the lower house, right next to the litter tray as a toilet, so this house needs a much heavier duty base.

These microfibre bath mats from Wilkos are ideal as they are very thick and comfortable for the guinea pigs to lie on, and if you cut them in half and trim off the edging, they are wide enough to fit under a good sized guinea pig house, leaving a cozy area that extends in front of the house for them to sleep on.

Making the house mats is pretty much the same as the bedding, but on a smaller scale.  The main difference is that the bathmats are much thicker, so they can be quite difficult to sew through.  You definitely need a heavy duty sewing machine needle for this.  I used a 120/20 needle for the house mats, but there's no harm in using this same needle throughout this whole project.

It's at this point that I realised that I didn't have enough of the new waterproof mattress protector and toweling left to make the house mats, but I was able cut sections of towel and mattress protector from my original bedding from the large areas that hadn't degraded.  I was glad to be able to reuse part of the old bedding, rather than throw the whole lot away.

Stitch all the way around the house mat, leaving an opening to turn it the right way round.

Clip the corners close to the stitches at 45 degrees.

Turn it the right way around and pin it closed.  I found that I had to hand stitch the opening closed this time as my sewing machine just couldn't cope with that amount of fabric.

Making smaller house mat liners.

I use two of these Ferplast pet houses with one side removed (to give them easier access to the hay corner) in my guinea pig cage.  They are actually sold as rabbit houses, but I'm sure they are much too small for even a dwarf rabbit.  They do however fit two adult guinea pigs quite comfortably.

Here's the template I use to make my house mats.  I haven't made a photo tutorial for the house mats as the process is exactly the same as for the previous two but on a smaller scale.  These smaller house mats are perfect for resting areas that don't get used quite so heavily as a toilet.  I have three of these in my guinea pig cage, one in the upper house and two in the small hidey areas to the side of the tiered houses.

These can be easily brushed down every day and changed if they get wet.  I rarely find that they get saturated though as our guinea pigs don't often like to wee where they sleep...

Here is a complete set of waterproof guinea pig fleece bedding that I use every week in my guinea pig cage.  I made two sets - one to use and one to wash.


Do you save money using washable guinea pig bedding?

I was intrigued to work out if I really do save money in using washable fleece bedding as opposed to disposable substrate so I decided to do the maths.  Here is a breakdown of everything it costs me to maintain a clean guinea pig cage, assuming that the bedding will last me 2 years ...

  • 1 large Primark throw - £11
  • 1 Wilko's bath mat - £6
  • 3 x Haren bath sheets - £15
  • 2 x Gokart mattress protectors - £28
  • 2 years' worth of Fitch to fill a 53cm x 34cm litter tray - £82
  • Very approximate guestimate of the cost of washing fleece bedding over 2 years - £45
Therefore using and washing guinea pig bedding and Fitch over 2 years costs me £187, which equates to £93.50 a year.  (This doesn't include the savings I made by repurposing sections of my old bedding to make small house mats.)

At the moment, I use Fitch, which is a paper-based bedding, just in the hay/litter tray.  If I decided to use a disposable substrate instead of washable bedding, I would continue to use Fitch as it is absorbant and very low odour.  My current litter tray is 0.18m², but my full cage is 0.9m².  At the moment I use 20kg of paper-based bedding a year, which costs me £41.  If I were to fill my 0.9m² cage with Fitch it would cost me £205 a year.

So that's an annual saving of £111.50, plus the savings I made by repurposing usable parts of my cage liners the second time around.  I'm pretty pleased with that!

This blog post contains Amazon affiliate links to similar products that I purchased myself to make the guinea pig bedding. If you click through and purchase anything, I may receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.

Please be sweet and share the love. Leave a comment, like my Facebook page for regular updates or follow me on Pinterest,  Blogovin' or Instagram