Handspinning Cashmere

What do handspinners want when they buy raw cashmere? First, they want good style. Style is the degree of crimp that each cashmere fiber. It is style that allows the fibers to hang together during the spinning process. Second, they want clear differentiation. Differentiation refers to the difference in diameter between guard hairs and down. The guard hairs should be straight; not wavy in any way. Thirdly, they want handle. Cashmere should have that indefinable feel of the softness of fine cashmere. Lastly, the length of down is important. While the longer fibers are easier to spin, the shorter, and frequently finer, cashmere fibers can be wonderfully carded and blended together with another compatible fiber. Merino and cashmere blends are lovely as are others.

All of the above criteria might be satisfied, yet the fleece still might be unusable if the contamination by vegetable matter and dirt is too extensive. To help avoid this problem, the following list has been compiled of typical problems and some suggested solutions:

1) Hay and vegetable matter – Use feeders that maximize feed utilization and minimize contamination to fleeces.
2)Feed at or below shoulder level.
3)Fill feeders when the goats are out.
4)Easily cleaned floors where the goats bed down are helpful if cleaned regularly.
5) Lice: Use Ivomec subcutaneous or pour-on or an oral drench. Do not to use topical products.

A few other possible tips you might try for successful hand spinning fleeces:

Combing Utensil: The tool of choice for gathering down, but leaving at least some of the guard hairs seems to be a “matt rake”. The kind with long teeth, 3/4 inch, is available at many pet stores for around $15. Choose a comb that has longer teeth to allow the build-up of combed cashmere on the tines. You won’t have to clean the rake as often, speeding up the combing process.

Sheep Coats: After the growing season for the fleece, you may want to try “coating” your goats prior to combing. This will protect the fleece from contamination and ultra violet rays. They also may keep fleece from dropping on the nearest fence post before you are able to comb or gather it. However, goats may use their horns to rip holes or shred their or their companion’s coats. Here are two coat suppliers:

  • Pat’s Sheep Shawl, 918 Main St, Chadron, NE 69337, (308)432-3682 (100% pure milled cotton)
  • Powell Sheep Company, P.O. Box 183, Ramona, California, 619-789-1758 (100% woven polypropylene)

  • Fairly clean and good quality combed doe or wether fleeces may bring up to $40 per pound. This works out on average to $47 to $68 dollars a pound for the down, (once the guard hairs are removed). Most of the people buying fiber are spinners who may have a project in mind that would work well with cashmere or a cashmere blend. Some spin almost exclusively with luxury fibers. They may only buy a few ounces to a pound, and the quality of that fiber is very important to them. The hand processed cashmere is definitely more difficult, expensive and time consuming to supply, but for some it is just what they want. For others, the commercially dehaired fiber may work fine. But whichever they chose, it must be of good quality and free from vegetable matter contamination.

    Scouring – Scour small quantities of cashmere at a time (1/2 oz), in nylon mesh bags. Slowly dip the bags into medium-hot water with a mild biodegradable soap such as Tide, Orvus, Ivory Liquid or Drift (particularly good for removing odors). DO NOT AGITATE! Leave about 20 minutes. Remove and dip into rinse water (same temperature, cashmere will felt if the temperature changes too quickly). Remove and dip into rinse until water is clear. Do not add water to the rinses while fiber is in it, just gently remove from one and set into the next. You may want to do a rinse with a small amount of vinegar to remove the soap completely, and then a final rinse. Remove and place on dry towels to air dry.

    Dehairing Raw Cashmere – After scouring, you may want to card to separate the fibers and remove some debris and guard hairs. Beware of commercial carding machines, very few are designed for really fine fibers. Hand card, or work with someone who understands cashmere. Next, you may want to locate several sheets of construction paper, light to dark in value, a flat Tupperware container, and some needlenose tweezers. I place the sheets of paper in the Tupperware container, with the top one contrasting to whatever fleece I am working on. Gently pull apart, and squeeze some fiber to locate the guard hairs. The tweezers are helpful as the cashmere will stick to your fingers otherwise. The guard hairs and debris will fall onto the construction paper, and the top sheet can be lifted occasionally to allow them to fall underneath (you may want to keep the guard hair for weaving or other purposes). The fiber you are working on can then be stored in Tupperware, and ready to continue on as you have time.

    Storing cashmere and cashmere blends – Although, to protect fiber in shipping it should be packaged in plastic bags, storing cashmere or fine fibers in plastic bags for long periods of time is not recommended. The fiber will tend to felt and become unusable for spinning. Paper or breathable containers are recommended for cashmere fiber and yarns. Cedar chests or cardboard boxes with cedar pieces are recommended for garments.

    Spinning Cashmere – We recommend spinning woolen fairly fine. There should be a high twist, as with any fine shorter fiber, but not so tight as to lose the soft feel of the cashmere.Cashmere is naturally low in grease, and indeed, seems to shed grease and dirt. For the dehaired fiber, you can either take handful and spin, or make a thin rolag with a knitting needle and spin from an end.

    If you are not confident in fine spinning, set your wheel to spin at a slower ratio. For maximum control, a ratio of 7:1 to 9:1 is recommended with a larger flyer whorl. It is important to keep treadling to allow time for adequate twist build up. A high twist is necessary for the fragile first ply. Loosen the brake band/tensioner for minimal pull. More experienced spinners can spin faster with a high speed bobbin and smaller whorl for a higher ratio.

    Plied yarn should be soaked for 20 minutes in very warm water and a light dishwashing liquid such as Ivory or Dawn. Rinse at the same temperature. Do not agitate or change the water temperature as this can cause felting. Skeins can be rolled in a towel and hung to dry. This brings out the loft and natural softness of cashmere. Do not store cashmere fiber and yarns in plastic for long periods is this can cause the fiber to felt, especially when in batt form.

    Use cloves or cedar chips to repel insects. Roll, rather than fold your finished garments for storage. Fiber in batt form can be separated into layers as from a silk cap, predrafted into a roving, made into a rolag with a knitting needle and spun from the end, or tufted from the batt. Spin woolen fairly fine to give loft and softness. Aim for a finer single first ply yarn for a final fine two or three ply yarn. A fine single ply is not strong. Use a short two-handed draw with a draft area of about one inch and a wide fan to separate the fibers.

    Keep minimal or no tension (depending on your wheel) on the fiber between the wheel orifice and the hands, to produce a high twist. Use a dark apron or lap cloth for contrast needed to keep the yarn diameter consistent. Hold your batt piece lightly to avoid felting. Spinning cashgora is similar to spinning cashmere, but to enhance the natural luster or sheen of cashgora, a more worsted style of spinning is recommended. Cashmere blends well with several natural fibers including wool, tussah and bombyx silk, camel hair, Angora rabbit and other fibers of similar fineness and length. Other fine fibers and some blends will be available.

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