I’ve mentioned the ‘skinless sheepskin rug’ project a few times, and now that it is complete, I can give you a full explanation - with pictures, even! Here is the finished product, on display at the Natural Fibres Competition at Fibre Week:
The objective was to make something that looked like a sheepskin rug without needing a tanner’s skills (or a dead sheep, for that matter). The secondary objective was to create something that could be entered in the Natural Fibres competition at Fibre Week, which meant all the materials had to be completely natural. I might have used a synthetic warp, for strength, but in keeping with the natural fibre theme, I used some cotton warp set fairly wide apart. The backing fabric used a double strand of thin wool rovings from Custom Woolen Mills, as I knew from past experience that those would felt into a nice solid fabric base after washing. Last but not least, fistfuls of raw fleece were pulled from the bags of wool that are currently blocking access to the rest of my fibre room. :)
The basic strategy is very straightforward: weave about an inch of plain weave with the thin wool, beating it well so it’ll make a solid base fabric. Then the fun begins: pull out locks of wool about as big around as your thumb from the pile of raw fleece, and wrap each lock around every third warp thread in such a way that they tuft up, much the same way thrums are made on mittens.
Choose locks of approximately equal size and look for ones that are fairly clean – dirt is okay as it’ll dissolve in the wash, but hay and straw will just felt in place, so it’s a good idea to pick those out as you go. When the row of fleece is finished, beat it down and continue with the plain weave for another inch, then repeat the tufting process, offset by one warp thread. The offset helps to distribute the locks more evenly across the surface of the fabric, it breaks up the columns you’d get otherwise.
The back of the fabric looks really interesting, you can see where each lock is looped around the warp threads.
When the whole thing is as long as it needs to be, the warp is cut, the ends knotted, and the whole thing gets thrown in the wash on warm/cold with a generous dose of laundry soap to clean the wool. It’s a long wash cycle, waiting to see if it turns out or becomes a solid felted lump of useless fibre … which is why I had done two test swatches first, just to be on the safe side. Front load washers do not give you the option to stop midcycle and peek! :)
The finished rug is not quite as dense as it was before washing, so it’s a good idea to err on the side of fleece overdose if you want a good thick mat when you’re finished. The completed piece would make a great floor rug for beside the bed (imagine sinking your cold toes into that first thing in the morning!), or a chair cover (I put it on the driver’s seat for the ride home from Olds, and wow, is it ever comfortable!), and would be ideal for a person suffering from bedsores or confined to a wheelchair (in fact, real and synthetic sheep skins are often used in those situations – washable real wool might be a welcome alternative for some).
Another use would be as a saddlepad for a rider who doesn’t use a close-contact saddle and has a bony horse: wool is the ideal material for a saddle blanket as it absorbs moisture and won’t chafe against the skin. This particular style would provide plenty of cushioning between saddle and horse, and reduce friction significantly: the wool locks will move against the horse’s body and the top of the blanket will move with the saddle.
I’m very pleased with the finished product, and have definite plans to make more. I’ve got a few horse people interested in serving as product testers, so I think I’d better get some more warp done up and get started on another one!