Tag Archives: fleece

The big, dumb spinning wheel refinishing project

So I’ve been working on this project.

I got an Ashford Traditional spinning wheel a couple months ago. Me being me, instead of starting off with something easy and approachable like renting a few wheels and taking some classes until I could make an informed choice, I decided I’d just buy one! And not just one off the rack, but a used one! A cheap one that most people would overlook, that I could fix up myself!! And that I’d eventually use to spin whole fleeces from start to finish!!!

A raw light moorit Merino fleece in all its complete, barnyard-smelling glory.
Example: A raw, light moorit Merino fleece in all its complete, barnyard-smelling glory. I kinda got ahead of myself.

And the whole project would have to end up amazing because I am so amazing and ambitious and talented!!!!

Which is how I ended up with an Ashford Traditional that someone had started painting black and ditched halfway through.

Look at this poor Harvey Dent bastard.
Side one …

Which is understandable. Painting, staining and finishing is painstaking work if you want to do it right. It takes lots of scraping, sanding, care, assembly, disassembly, reassembly, tarping, cleaning, vacuuming and fussing. Not to mention turning things around, a step that didn’t seem to happen here.

… and side two. The poor Harvey Dent-looking bastard.

Goofy paint job or no, someone enjoyed this wheel, and you don’t need a nice paint job to spin. It’s pretty new and in fantastic shape, and I’m lucky to have it. So over the last couple months I’ve been researching furniture finishing, slowly removing as much of the stain as I can, and probably driving the neighbors crazy with the noise from my little power sander. I did the finish sanding by hand over many nights sitting on the living room floor by the TV and working my way through Parks & Rec with the cat curled up purring on the couch behind my head. By the time I was done the wood was silky smooth to the touch, and the entire living room was blanketed in a thin, fine layer of settled sawdust.

And because I can’t let well enough alone, I decided I didn’t just want to refinish it, I wanted to make it completely!! amazing!!! and would decorate it before applying an all-natural Danish oil. I had plenty of time while I sanded to think about what art I wanted. I finally landed on the work of one of my favorite illustrators, Arthur Rackham, and decided I’d use a wood-burning pen to apply it.

Only thing is, it’s been more than 20 years since I last used one of those. I loved the one I had as a kid, but the usual short attention span of children (plus my undiagnosed ADD) meant my technique had never gotten very far. So every time I picked up my new pen, I’d find another excuse to delay getting started: Maybe I should sand the hand carders again! Maybe I should polish all the metal fittings! Maybe I should google “wood burning tutorial” again! Maybe I should print out copies of the art I want to use, cut it out and arrange the pieces on the wheel so I know where they should go! Maybe I need backup art arrangements!

I am not chicken about crafts by nature, so the second or third time it happened I figured out that oh, duh, I was nervous. By this point, I’d sunk hundreds of dollars and hours into the wheel and I was scared of making it look clumsy and amateurish. So I walked down to my neighborhood’s newly opened craft store — in the last couple years it’s picked up a craft store and fancy ice cream; gentrification is real — and picked out a large basswood box to practice on. It’s perfect: just the right size to hold my hand carders; big enough I can use it as a test run for staining and finishing; and at twenty bucks, cheap enough that mistakes won’t make me cry.

Because I’m gonna make mistakes. They’re inevitable, and learning is just a matter of getting your mistakes out of the way. I’ve already made a couple just doing the first panel of the box. Hot tip (ha!): If you’re trying out a new kind of nib, don’t use it anywhere near detail areas until you know how it works at every angle; and don’t hold the pen at such a low angle that the metal collar scorches a line right through the middle of your deer.

By the time I’m done with this box, I hope to be so damn bored of it that I’m falling all over myself to get started on the wheel.

Wood burning test run
One side, one new nib and two shading techniques down, and five sides to go.

I went to a wool festival and all I got was a ton of photos and four pounds of raw fleece

So I have a couple new favorite things: my new 50mm lens, and wool festivals.


A couple friends and I went to the Casari Ranch wool festival last weekend. I didn’t know much about it, but I knew it was on the ranch itself, so it’d have ranch-type stuff happening and not just fiber-type stuff. Not that I mind fiber stuff, it’s just much easier to find in craft-happy Oakland than things involving actual sheep. So a couple friends and I piled into the car and headed three hours north to Point Arena.

Dancer the bummer, who was so tame she’d run to the fence so you could pet her.


Like every sheep farm probably is, it was liberally decorated with sheep skulls.

This is decor I can relate to.

We got to peer at the machinery for the wool mill, handle lots of raw fleece from different breeds and at different stages of prep, and get a feel for how to skirt and grade fleeces. I loved that part. Nothing helps you understand fiber terms like pulling on a lock of wool with a break in it and watching it dissipate into a cottony cloud, or holding a wad of lanolin-greasy wool still warm from the sheep, or watching second cuts fall like dandelion fluff through the skirting table. In the vendor area, I got to sift through whole raw fleeces and wool in every state from fleece to garments, getting a little more of the tactile knowledge you can’t get from googling. I even had a moment when I was handling a marked-down Corriedale-cross fleece and worrying that I might be missing a bargain if I didn’t buy it when it dawned on me that Oh, I can’t separate the locks at all over here, I think … I think the tips are pretty badly felted, and put it back.

Personally, what really drew me in was the shearing and its combination of force and finesse. As someone who’s always had office jobs I know it’s way too easy to romanticize hard physical work, but after years and years of pushing pixels for a living, it’s easy to get pulled in by tasks that have real, tangible results. (My favorite parts of learning to weld were testing seams by tossing a just-finished piece onto the cement for with a huge, resounding clang to see if the weld held, and bending pieces of metal by wailing on them with a hammer.) Some days it feels like my job could be easily replaced with spell check and a computer, something that’ll never happen with shearing.




As for wool, well … I brought enough cash that I could buy a decent fleece, not that I’m that great yet at knowing what “decent” is. I’ve done some spinning with a drop spindle, but I’m still a raw novice. (That didn’t stop me from getting a spinning wheel recently, which is still in pieces as I slowly sand and refinish it.) I figured, if I’m gonna do something, why not do it in the over-the-top, sink-yourself-into-it-until-you-know-how-to-do-it way I inherited from my mom? Besides, it’s shearing season! That’s how I talked myself into my first fleece, a Jacob that’s been slouching in a chair at my kitchen table like a slightly smelly dinner guest until I have time to wash it.

All I knew before going to Casari was I wanted something that was different from a Jacob, and that it probably shouldn’t be merino, since it’ll probably be awhile before I can handle such a short staple length. I gingerly dug through bags, teased apart locks, listened for the ping of sound wool as I tugged on it, happily exclaimed over the texture of what turned out to be wool skirting that the vendor told me was really only fit for felting, worried, waited, and anxiously eyed shoppers who’d arrived earlier as they carted away fleeces of their own.

And then, of course, came home with four pounds of raw merino, which I parked in the kitchen, in the other fleece’s lap. Together in the chair, they make a pile that comes up to my shoulder when I sit at the table next to them.

I’d say I’m off to a good start.

The lighthouse at Point Arena, which we visited after the wool festival.