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. 

At this point, I normally suggest similar related blog posts, however, my list of spinning-related content is becoming a little unmanageable...  If you'd like to read more blog posts about spinning and fibre preparation, please take a look at this page here where you will find links to all of my spinning and fibre articles.  

Thank you for reading, and happy spinning! 

If you enjoyed this, you might like to take a look at some of my other spinning-related blog posts -

3D Printed Modular
Lazy Kate

Yarn gauge reference tool for hand spinners

Testing the Electric Eel Wheel Yarn Counter Prototype


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Siberspinner said...

My sources tell me that collie undercoat is another one that can be a pleasure to spin.

The carding of dog undercoat to spin is a bit different from the carding of wool. I probably transfer the stuff from one carder to the other five or six times before I am satisfied that the noils are out of it. Then I roll it off the carder in a tight roll starting on the side away from the handle.

As for guard hairs, if you can convince your provider to pull out the most obvious guard hairs off his/her own combs or slicker brushes and to save only the undercoat from the sides and ruff, leaving the short stuff from the legs and the stiffer stuff from the feathers and tail as fertilizer or bird nest material, your life will be much happier.

Your buddy from Spinnin' Chiengora, aka Siberspinner

susan said...

Good instructions!

I always ask people who want dog hair spun to limit their 'harvesting' to back and sides (no tail hair or hair from the haunches) and that eliminates a lot of guard hairs. I mostly ignore the little guard hair that remains. In addition to the dog breeds you mention, I've spun Bouvier, half-wolf and Shetland Sheepdog -- the latter makes a particularly lovely halo once knit.

I generally spin unwashed fur, then wash the yarn, to protect my septic system from the loose fibres inevitably lost down the drain. And: note that although the washed yarn has no doggy smell to people, most dogs know something is up when they sniff it!

Siberspinner said...

I agree, Susan. I spin the fur unwashed but sprayed with water and oil (in my case, Neutrogena Light Sesame) and then I wash the yarn in very hot water with a dog shampoo afterward.

I was advised by several spinning teachers to add a dollop of white vinegar to the final rinse to make sure it gets stored in a slightly acid state since it's a protein fiber.

I was also advised in the case of dog hair yarn to agitate it vigorously, even use a mini-plunger, and then further shock it by alternating hot and cold rinses. While you'd never do this with wool, it helps to keep the yarn from shedding like my huskies.

Kathryn - Craftmehappy said...

Shauna4467 said...
I have been reading your blog on spinning Malamute hair / fur and have a couple of questions in regards the drying and removal of the guard hairs. Firstly can it be hung on the line outside for a couple of days to dry rather than over a heater/ radiator? Secondly is the issue with the guard hair primarily that it makes the yarn prickly / scratchy or does it not spin properly? I am not wanting (in the first instance anyway) to make anything wearable, rather to crochet a throw / blanket (very basic). I don’t have access to a dryer and was wondering if removal through the washing would be enough. Appreciate your thoughts.

4/27/2020 6:51 am
Kathryn - Craftmehappy said...
Hi Shauna
Yes, hanging the dog hair on the line in warm weather would work. It was winter when I dried mine so this wasn’t an option. You want to almost “over dry” it, then you should be able to shake the delicates laundry bag and/or hit it with a paddle or bat of some sort and a lot of the thicker guard hairs will fall out.
I was intent on removing as many of the guard hairs as I could as I wanted a (neck soft) wearable yarn. A lot of people that spin their own dog hair learn to be selective when they brush their dog and only use the hair from the back and sides at the beginning of the shedding phase when the brushed hair contains fewer guard hairs - in which case you probably wouldn’t need to worry about removing a few guard hairs.
Yarn with a lot of guard hairs in would be more like string - very prickly and itchy to wear - but it would be fine for a throw. Dog yarn is much warmer than sheep yarn, so it would make a very cosy blanket.

TutleyMutley said...

A really impressive and comprehensive article, Kathryn - and removing all those guard hairs? What a labour of love. I've had best results from asking the owners to choose only back and side hair too - as others have said. One of my favourite results was long haired German Shepherd - silky soft and a beautiful colour too.
Terri (tutleymutley on Spinnin'chien!)

Anonymous said...

Awesome article, thank you for sharing this 🧡

Murphy'sMum said...

I'm a dog groomer, I'm looking for ways to recycle as much dog hair as possible. What I'm wondering is if the cleaned and dry hair was used as stuffing or an insulating type material instead of being spun, can the item it is stuffed in then be washed like any other garment? Will it last as well as any other wool type stuffing?

Kathryn - Craftmehappy said...

Hi, it would certainly make a lovely warm stuffing for a something that was going to be lightly used - much warmer than your regular stuffing material. You wouldn’t be able to just throw it in the washing machine though as the fibres would felt and mat together and you would end up with a shrunken lump inside your pillow. I suspect it would also felt or mat if you sat or leant on it repeatedly but it would probably make a cosy occasional quilt.

Zoe said...

Thanks for the article! I wonder if soft-coated wheaten terrier hair would spin well. They are single-coated dogs, but especially the juveniles have extremely soft hair that tends to get pretty woolly. If you avoid the ruff and legs there aren’t any coarse hairs like on an adult or a poodle mix. They don’t drop very much so it would have to be clipped but you would get the benefit of much longer strands. Maybe next time I trim my dog I’ll test it out

Unknown said...

Goodness, you certainly are extremely dedicated! My Malamute is shedding at the moment & I have a massive bag of floof...after reading your article I now know that even if I'd collected just the soft undercoat, I really do not have the patience to spin it but thank you, it was very interesting & well done for your perseverance!

Anonymous said...

Anyone use coton de tulear?

Kathryn - Craftmehappy said...

I’ve just looked up a coton de tulear. What a sweet dog! I would definitely recommend taking a look at the “spinnin’ chien” forum on Ravelry. There was a lady on there with a coton de tulear, but I didn’t see if she had success spinning it.

From what I read, it doesn’t shed much and doesn’t have much of an undercoat, but, it does have a soft coat. I’ve heard of some people with very soft dogs not having to worry about only spinning the fine underhairs. The hair definitely looks long enough for spinning…

Anonymous said...

Does the kind of foam matter/what kind of foam did you use?

Anonymous said...

The foam I used was some off cuts I had leftover from upholstering a seat pad, so a medium density foam.