Editor's Note: Holly wrote a wonderful article for Spin Off Fall 2021 about processing fleeces from her Hog Island sheep. These rare fleeces offer special challenges, including nepps. She mentions in the article that she saves these precious nepps to create what she calls rare-breed tweed. We asked her to tell us more about it!
Working with heritage-breed fleece, especially whole fleeces, means you may end up with lots of leftover bits of wool. I process a lot of fleece from my handspinner’s flock of Jacob and Hog Island ewes and end up with miscellaneous unused portions of fleece. In addition, Hog Island wool often contains nepps. They’re created during processing when the natural wool break occurs. I pull out and save a lot of these nepps to make rare-breed tweed.
It usually takes me a few months of processing and spinning to collect enough for a project. When I have a few handfuls of nepps, I’ll add them to an acid dye bath and use the resulting colored bits to create my rare-breed tweed. I like to have at least three different colors of nepps before I begin blending, but subtle monochromatic shades are also effective.
Tweed is traditionally woolen-spun yarn that is woven most commonly into a twill or plain-weave pattern. It tends to make a warm and durable fabric, used for hard-wearing outerwear. "Tweed" most often referres to woven cloth, but knitted tweed fabrics look great as well.
The simplest tweed yarn that I make is two colors/breeds blended together, with dyed nepps carded into the batt. My usual blend is fleece from my light-colored Hog Island ewes mixed with my Jacob’s black and dark brown spots. The result is a gray yarn with flecks of color throughout. You can also make heathered tweed by mixing in additional dyed wool. To keep your tweed subtle use the smallest of the nepps. The bigger and brighter the nepps, the more dramatic the fabric.
I generally use wools that are similar in staple length, but you can cut long staples shorter if necessary. There are no hard and fast rules for rare-breed tweed. You can use two or three different breeds, the same breed in different colors of wool, nepps dyed all one color, or a rainbow of colors. The wool can be fine and soft or coarse. I’ve made tweed yarn from strong wools and knitted it into wonderful bags.
You can make your own tweed by blending your wool on a drumcarder or on handcards. I generally make several passes on the drumcarder, splitting each batt into sections and re-carding as I go. The nepps occasionally stick to the licker-in on my drumcarder, but it’s easy enough to pull them off and layer them back into the fiber as I re-card.
Spinning the tweed yarn is easy and fun. I use a supported longdraw, letting plenty of twist into the drafting zone to grab onto the nepps. Some extra twist in plying helps keep the nepps in place as you finish the yarn. Wash, dry, a few quick snaps, and the yarn is ready to be knitted or woven into beautiful rare-breed tweed fabric.
Holly Callahan-Kasmala lives in northern Maryland with her photographer husband, two dogs, a handspinner's flock of Jacob and Hog Island Sheep, and myriad chickens. She is cohost of the Coffee with the Chicken Ladies podcast and writes about all things sheep and wool on her blog baltimorewoolcompany.com.