Hackles rising

I’ve been playing in the garden with a new(ish) toy. My hackle.

That’s a fibre hackle of course; I haven’t suddenly taken up fly fishing, chicken keeping or joined a Highland regiment, all of which have hackles of their own. And their hackles do not involve the assembly of two blocks of wood, some hair combs and a couple of G-clamps. The fact that my hackle is made of such things will not surprise anyone who  knows that my spinning wheel is also made of similarly improvised materials

When I say it’s ‘newish’, I mean newish to me, that is; hackles have been in use for thousands of years. Classically, they were used for bast fibres – woody plant fibres like flax, hemp or nettle – in separating the tougher stems or short broken fibres from the more usable material.

A lot of the processes involved in textile production leave scarcely a trace in the archaeological record so you can only make assumptions, but some hackles have survived. As usual, there’s evidence from Ancient Egypt – the preservation conditions are so very good – but there are also hackles from Neolithic Swiss lake villages, where they were abandoned or dropped about 5000 years ago. One is made from rib bones, and another is really a hackling board – a paddle-shaped piece of wood which had originally had sharp thorns inserted in its flat surface.

(At least I don’t have to risk life and limb with bones or savage thorns, though I’m sure a well-placed hackle could inflict quite a nasty injury.)

I found some bright green merino tops in my stash. It was a strange fierce colour; in some lights it looked almost a jade; in others a peacock blue or even emerald. But harsh – definitely harsh. So the solution was to blend it. I could have done it on hand cards; I could have done it on the drum carder, but that’s being used by the joint owner. Time to get out the hackle.

I began to load it up, working across the combs with some carded fleece to give the merino a bit of body; merino is so very slippery. Then I added some cream merino. You use the hackle almost like a comb, just allowing the fibre to catch on the tines and drape down.

At this point the wind got up. Hm.

Nonetheless I persisted, as the picnic bench is a lot more substantial than the dining table, plus the clamps do tend to leave marks. I carried on building up the fine layers of fleece, then white and black merino, plus the alarming greeny blue – already looking a lot better.

This is what the hackle looked like from the back – much more loaded this time:

Once the hackle is loaded – not right to the top, that would be too much – you need another highly specialised piece of equipment, a diz.

Here are mine, in various sizes:

Yes, that’s it – shells with holes in them. I’ve found limpets to be the best, as they’re quite tough. You take the fibres at one end of the hackle, pull them out, twist them a little and then thread them through the diz (a crochet hook can come in handy). Then you start pulling, gradually working your way to the other end of the hackle, incorporating the fibre as you go. In fact, it incorporates itself quite easily.

I’ve fiddled about with various shells, and this medium limpet, this way up, is the best for me. The strip or sliver of fibre that you pull through the diz gets longer and longer – or at least it does if you’re careful (and if you remove next door’s cat from under the picnic table).

You have to put just the right amount of pressure on: too much, and you’ll pull the fibre out in short, broken lengths; too little, and you won’t make any progress. I’m just learning, really, but I found that by the time I’d processed most of my fluff I was becoming much more accomplished. You should end up with a long sliver of useful blended fibre – short fibres will be left behind, and of course you can use a hackle to separate fibres as well as blend them.

And here’s some of my hackled blend, rolled up, ready and waiting (I only had to reclaim it once from the bushes as I was taking this shot – the wind began to die down and the cat vamooshed when a visitor called):

It’s spinning up quite nicely. I still have to take the spinning quite slowly, and I feel a bit as though I’m starting over again (I’d only just learned to spin – I originally typed that as ‘sin’; Freud could have been onto something – when I hurt my hand), but I’m getting there.

I shall be able to produce about three skeins – enough for a shawlette, I hope – and I’ve used all the green and a certain amount of other colours from the stash. Of course, I’ve just transferred this from the spinning stash into the knitting stash, but it’s the thought that counts!

PS: There are some instructional video clips online, but I didn’t find any of them particularly clear; I need to tap into a more physical memory, I think. Much, much better was talking to people who knew what they were doing, and being shown by them – and if any readers can offer me more advice, I’ll be very grateful. Thanks to Artis-Anne, the Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers, and G., master of the bits of wood, for making my hackle.)


4 thoughts on “Hackles rising

    1. kate Post author

      Thanks – and I managed to get the rest finished, so now I need to find a pattern and get on with it… (I didn’t want to spin at all, but I’m really hooked, so do be careful if you get into it. Your stash will expand enormously!)

  1. Knitsister

    Thank you for this very interesting lesson in the art of ‘hackles’. I am so wanting to learn to spin but I know that it would be very foolish indeed as I already don’t have enough time in the day to do everything I want to do.
    I am sure to succumb to it one day though.
    Looking forward to hearing which design you choose for this beauty of a yarn.

    1. kate Post author

      Well, I definitely was NOT going to learn to spin, and then I was effectively bequeathed a wheel… these things have the habit of catching up with you!

      I’ve got to finish washing all the yarn (it’s all plied and skeined now) and then work out the wpi and how many metres I’ve got to play with – and there are some good handspun patterns on Knitty…


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