Stories from the Islands

A time to spin

Written by Christine Muir

We have had someone staying with us for a fortnight, who wanted to learn to spin, so the spinning wheels came into the kitchen again, along with the lazy kate, and the reel, and a sack of fleece, as well as a pile of newspapers to tease the wool on.

You need room to collect everything together, space to spread the fleece out on the floor to sort it, and to tease it out. Then it has to be carded into rolags, which are light and so free from tangles that you can see through them when you hold them up to the light.

The carders are flat wooden boards with nailed pads of sharp steel teeth.

Carding is an art which is not easy to learn, and good spinning depends on skilled carding. The wool is combed out with the top carder, held in the right hand, then the action is reversed, so that the wool is turned over.

When the fibres are pulled out and clear, the rolags, or rowers, are rolled off very lightly.

Twelve rowers make a kneuk, and then we can begin to spin. You can keep the carded rolags in a wicker basket close to your hand, to ensure the continuous and even movement of the wool on to the bobbin. I usually put them over the metal bar of the range, because the warmth makes them fluff up, and spin easily.

The rolag is held in the left hand, and fed into the wheel with the right, while the wheel is treadled. The wool is held on a series of hooks on the flier, and wound on to the bobbin. As the wheel goes round, and the wool is pulled in, the twist enters the rolag. The wheel makes a gentle whirring sound, and the treadle a rhythmic thud, and the synchronised movements of hands and feet are beautiful to watch.

When the bobbin is full of wool, it is removed from the spindle, and put on the lazy kate or sweerie, and another bobbin filled. Two bobbins or three are then plied together on an empty bobbin, by reversing the wheel and spinning backwards. Then the plied wool is wound in a figure-of-eight action on a wooden reel, a rod with a bar at each end at right angles to each other.

This hand-made reel from the last century is made to a specific length, so that the wool could be wound in hanks of known length, threads counted, and quantities calculated. The vikings used a similar device, without the right-angling of one bar. The hanks are tied firmly in at least two places, and scoured in hot soapy water twice, then rinsed and dried outside. It is smooth in texture, fine, and very soft.

It’s best to spin the wool as soon as it is carded, rather than to card a basketful, and leave it overnight, as the rolags are never so light and full of air on the following day. So it is necessary to be able to concentrate solely on spinning for a few hours at a time.

Spun wool seems to be much warmer than commercially-produced wool, and it has been well worth learning to spin, to use some of the coloured fleeces, in every shade from cream through brown and grey to black. It is ideal here for keeping out the rain and cold, for mittens for outside work, because it is so hard-wearing and warm. It is also perfect for children’s socks, for feet that are chilled in rubber boots.

Care has to be taken to adapt a knitting pattern to suit the wool, and even a tension square isn’t a sure guide, for the result is always larger than intended, possibly because of the air trapped in spinning.

It is especially interesting to knit two- or three-colour patterns, not only are they warmer, but Swedish, or Norwegian patterns look good knitted in North Ronaldsay wool.

It is very easy to be bewitched by spinning, after a lapse of a few months, and to spend every spare moment producing hanks of soft, warm wool, but it can give you sore shoulders, and painful fingers if you persist too long. To transform raw, unprepossessing fleece into beautiful hanks in subtle shades, or white wool which can be dyed with madder to produce apricot and russet, or with lichen, or many other plants, is an exciting and rewarding activity, and the product is so useful that we never have enough spun wool.

From the book Orkney Days by Christine Muir. A few copies of the book are available from the author for £11 by cheque including P&P, from Garso, North Ronaldsay, Orkney KW17 2BG.

About the author

Christine Muir

Christine is a Leith lass, who has lived in North Ronaldsay all her married life, and brought up four children on the croft, with her husband Tommy. She loves languages, history, writing, music, and her family. She also loves the Open University, which encouraged her to study for three degrees, and enabled her to teach, proving that distance is no barrier to learning.