Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Turning a Custom Blend into a Hackle Gradient

At the beginning of last year I wrote a blog post about a fibre preparation experiment I’d been mulling over -

My idea was that I could use my homemade hackle to draft off a gradient, purely by taking advantage of the variations in fibre length between the different colours.

When you diz the fibres off a hackle, especially if you draft them off thinly, and move repeatedly from side to side, you inevitably pull off the longest fibres first, and end with the very shortest fibres.  If you know that the average staple length of at least one of the colours is significantly shorter or longer than the other colours you can use this to your advantage to spin a long gradient yarn.

In the yarn that I spun last year, I filled my hackle 3 times to spin a 3 ply yarn.  I knew that the black fibres were significantly shorter than the others and so this resulted in more lighter blues being drafted off the hackle first, and ended with more black fibres being drafted off later on.  It isn’t an exact science and so when you combine all of the gradient plies together, the resulting yarn is a really interesting, complex gradient that transitions smoothly, meandering through colour shifts without any sudden changes or striping that might be distracting in the final garment.

When I wrote about this technique I said that I’d love to spin more of this yarn so that I could make something more substantial, but I’ve really struggled to muster the motivation to repeat the experiment again.  

It’s quite a labour-intensive technique: In my original method, the fibres needed to be drafted onto the hackle very thinly, in many fine layers and it took me 45 minutes to load the hackle every time.  I do have a lot of patience but even I found it tedious.  I began to wonder if I could speed up the process by purchasing a blend of fibres that would give me the ‘hackle gradient’ that I was looking for without having to spend so long thinly drafting different coloured fibres onto the hackle.

After looking for a little while for a commercially available blended top that had an interesting mix of fibre types and colours, I decided to bite the bullet and order a custom blend from World of Wool.

I’ve blended many different coloured fibres together over the last few years, both using my mini wool combs and my hackle.  I’ve learned that even when you’re working with the same type of fibres,  the chances of drafting off a slight gradient when working with two or more colours is pretty high, so I was very optimistic.

I e-mailed World of Wool a few times, back and forth, trying to establish which fibres would blend well together and which fibres had generally longer or shorter average staple lengths.  At the end of the day though, I would be working with natural fibres so there would be no guarantees that the fibre lengths would be different enough for me to achieve a definite gradient.

I was told that the bamboo fibres are generally longer than the merino fibres and that the superfine merino is generally shorter than the regular 23-micron merino so I thought that these fibres would work well together.

This is the breakdown of colours and proportions of fibre in my custom blend.  I thought if I used several colours and fibre types this would increase the chances of achieving a gradient.  And even if it didn’t, I would still have a beautiful dark, turquoise blend to work with - which is one of my favourite colours!

The World of Wool custom blend service allows you to blend 8 different fibres together from their full range of fibres, which is pretty versatile.  I ordered two parts of black bamboo and turquoise merino, and one part of all of the other colours.  My hope was that more of the darker bamboo colours would draft off in the beginning, followed by the mid-toned merino and then finally the lighter superfine merino.  That was my thought process for picking those fibres and colours anyway…  I asked for the fibres to be blended 4 times in the hope that this would thin out the individual colours and make them easier to draft onto the hackle. (In hindsight, I would probably request that the fibres be blended 2 or 3 times in future.)

My hackle can hold about 50 grams of fibre and so I weighed off 50g of blended top for each bobbin (shown above). 

I'll be uploading a video version of this blog post to my YouTube channel very soon.

Here’s my hackle after loading it with 50g of my custom blend.  I’m pleased to say that using a blend of fibres instead of loading the colours individually saved me a significant amount of time.  It took me a little over 6 minutes to load the hackle, compared to the 45 minutes it had taken me previously.  I’m very happy with that! 

You can, however, already see that my gradient isn’t quite going to go to plan…  as you look down at the tips of the fibres, you can see that the last few centimetres of fibre are quite a bit lighter than the fibres slightly further in.  This tells me that maybe the average length of the bamboo fibres might be longer than the merino fibres, but the merino fibres cover a wider range of lengths - many of them longer than the black and dark blue bamboo fibres.

Now that I think about it, this does make sense.  The bamboo fibres, although they come from a natural source, are chemically manufactured in a similar way to viscose rayon.  The staple length is artificially achieved by cutting the fibres prior to spinning so they are unlikely to have the wide range of lengths that you would see in a fully natural product like merino wool.

Although this does mean that I won’t pull the fibres off in a dark-to-light gradient, it does mean that I should achieve quite the opposite, which is also fine.

Dizzing the drafted pulled top off the hackle

I like to clamp a board under my hackle to sit the fibres on as they come off the hackle.  I’m using the smallest hole in my diz and, as the fibres get progressively shorter, they come apart much more easily.  Not allowing the fibres to fall too far reduces the risk of the pulled top breaking apart.

I work my way left and right, back and forth towards the hackle, drafting off the thin pulled top.  You can see in this animated gif that a lot of the longer turquoise merino fibres have already been pulled off the hackle.  I’m still working from a mixture of fibre types but there seems to be a higher proportion of darker bamboo fibres at this stage.

I love seeing the full gradient sprawled out in front of the hackle.  It reassures me that the blended top has been transformed.

I don’t think the gradient is going to be as long, or as subtle as my original experiment but it’s most definitely there.

I think this image shows just how efficient my homemade hackle can be at both blending colours together, and sorting fibres into staple length order.  The colours are beautifully optically blended, but there are definitely more lighter fibres on the outside of my nest of pulled top.

It always amuses me when I sit the nearly 50g of prepared fibre next to the tiny little Nano, knowing that it will somehow all squeeze on!

I took photos of my Nano bobbin after I filled every other layer to see if the gradient was long or sudden -

There appears to be quite an abrupt switch between light and dark in the beginning but then there is a lot of dithering that continues for most of the singles until the turquoise colour gradually dissolves away.  Over several plies, I think this should still give me quite a long complex gradient.

I doubt it will be as complex as my original gradient yarn, but this technique will probably always be very experimental.

I want to spin an Aran weight yarn (US worsted weight) and after test plying with 5 plies, I learned that I need to ply 6 singles together to achieve a yarn that knits up to the desired gauge.

You can see in this video how I used the Electric Eel Wheel Yarn Counter to spin a test ply yarn with very little wastage.

(Full Disclosure - All of the singles for this yarn were spun on the Electric Eel Wheel Nano and then later plied on the Electric Eel Wheel 6.  I am a Dreaming Robots Affiliate and if you click through and make a purchase, I may receive a small percentage of the purchase price at no additional cost to you.  My blog is non-profit and any ad revenue goes a small way towards funding future blog posts.)

Here’s my full gradient of plied yarn on the bobbins.  You can see the dithering effect on the outside of the fuller bobbin created by plying 6 hackle gradients together.  Hopefully, this means that I may still have achieved quite a long gradient.

Winding it off to wash it shows off the gradient even better.  There’s a little under 300g here and even seeing it bunched together on my ‘vintage’ skein winder is making me feel very optimistic.

Here's just one of my 6-ply yarns after it's been washed and wound into a centre-pull ball.

It's not quite the complex dark-to-light gradient I was aiming for, but it definitely worked!

I used the Electric Eel Wheel Yarn Counter to measure the final two balls of yarn and I have about 900 metres of Worsted Weight, long gradient yarn.

I should definitely have enough yarn to knit the body of a sweater helically (from both balls of yarn alternately) so that I have a lovely long gradient running from top to bottom, all the way around the front and back of the sweater.

Now I just need to decide what kind of 6-ply yarn I will spin to knit the sleeves!

Thank you so much for reading!  If you've found any of this post interesting or useful, please pin this image to Pinterest.  It makes a big difference to me and helps other spinners find it too.

Similar Blog Posts

Linear Blending a Wool Gradient

Hackle Blending a Gradient Yarn

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1 comment:

Christina Zook said...

Thanks for this post, it's very interesting! I'm intrigued by the concept.