Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Making a Spinner

What makes a spinner? Is it the best wheel, the best fiber, the most skeins sitting in baskets, the most classes taken, or what? How about the best spinners? What lets them effortlessly produce miles of beautiful yarn, either perfectly even or beautifully textured?

Do you think obsessing about the details of spinning is silly, and just want to sit down and spin yard after yard of singles as meditation or just for fun? That’s fine if it’s what you want; it’s hard to beat spinning as fiber therapy. Like the other fiberarts, there’s room in spinning for everyone. But if you want to continue to grow and evolve your spinning, this may give you a starting place.

I’ve been thinking over what makes a good spinner lately. I’ve been mentoring a group of beginners, and another of intermediate spinners, and it’s making me take a good hard look at my own spinning, and recognize my strengths and shortcomings. I’ve also been looking back over my evolution as a spinner for hints as to how those shortcomings developed and how I might correct them.

I’m a largely self-taught spinner. I had some wonderful help getting started, but after that first lesson I was pretty much on my own from one guild meeting to the next. So I did a lot of strange, wacky things to get the yarn I wanted with the tools I had, and “re-invented the wheel” more than someone who had the time and money and place to go for weekly classes or a week-long workshop.

Does that make self-teaching the best alternative? No, not necessarily. Like your spinning style, your learning style is individual to you. Was it the best alternative for me? Probably. I was very short of money, but had plenty of time and local sources of good, yet inexpensive fiber. Add in the fact that I’ve always preferred to spin fine, and you’ll see that I could get quite a lot of yardage from a $5 pound of raw wool! I also like to puzzle out things with the aid of a book or video, and find another person quite distracting to the process. So learning on my own was best for me.

I do sometimes wish I’d had the luxury of taking classes in basic and intermediate spinning techniques – I might have progressed faster, and found it easier to spin large amounts of yarn to exactly the same grist. I can do that now, but a class might have made it easier and cost less in time and ‘wasted’ wool.

On the other hand, if you can only learn something by watching someone else do it and asking questions, by all means take a class or ten, rent or buy appropriate videos/DVD’s and plant yourself and your wheel in front of the screen, or watch all the members in turn at local guild meetings. If you want to learn, find the way YOU learn best and then do whatever it takes to get it into your head and fingers.

As for the best equipment - I noticed at my first regional fiber festival that many of what I considered the best spinners used simple equipment. Again, it depends on the person. I love gadgets, and have tried many, and re-sold most of them. I like very fine, worsted-spun yarns. So the drum carder, while a great learning experience for about six months, sat unused in a corner of my studio for the next two years until a spinner came along who wanted one. She likes to spin worsted-weight woolen yarns for sweaters, and loves this tool. I’m sure it’s happier being used regularly.

But even the right tools for the job may not be right for you. I now have two sets of wool combs, down from four. I love the fiber prep that I get from 4- and 5-pitch English combs, but my arms and hands hurt for days after I use them for even a half-hour. (What can I say - my body is aging faster than my mind.) So I do an extra transfer pass on the double-pitch Vikings or the hand-held Forsythe combs and comb pain-free. Sure it’s a trade-off – most of life is, I’ve noticed. This is one trade-off I can live with.

Other gadgets I use frequently are a set of Allen wrenches in sizes for my wheels, an oil-bottle with a long needle, a real flicker instead of a dog-brush, and a small metal dog-comb with a long shaped handle. Gadgets that are occasionally useful include a set of half-size cotton cards and a spinning lap-cover I made from two colors of duck cloth. One side is white; the other is a medium-value blue, and the cloth makes it easier to spin dark or light fibers even in artificial light.

I have copious amounts of illusion netting in a neutral color – not quite white, but almost. Why? To wash those fine fleeces I love easily and properly in bulk. Do I use it? Not very often. I prefer washing a lock at a time. That way I get to make sure each lock is squeaky-clean and get a bonus of being able to fondle the fiber a bit more.

But we’ve wandered afield. What makes a spinner the best? Not necessarily classes, although they can certainly help and should be taken whenever possible. Not necessarily gadgets, although some are useful and some essential, depending on what you want to spin. What about an expensive wheel? Pleeeeease!

I currently own 3 spinning wheels. None are Rolls-Royces or Cadallics, only one might be termed a Buick. All three, to my mind, are steady, reliable and adaptable basic Toyotas. The Ashford Traveller was my second wheel. I didn’t learn the basics on this wheel – I could make yarn after a fashion before I got it – but it was my learner wheel nonetheless. I learned to spin a variety of fibers on this wheel, and learned the basics of keeping a wheel and spinner happy with it. I seldom spin on it any longer, but my 17-year-old son loves this wheel and has appropriated it. He’s not an everyday spinner, but nonetheless likes spinning well enough to assess college dorms by whether they have room for the wheel or not.

My workhorse is my Majacraft Rose. I fell in lust with this wheel when I saw a picture of it. But I couldn’t afford it! I kept spinning on the Traveller, and finally saved enough pennies. At SAFF two years later I sat down at a Rose, pockets stuffed with fine fluff and ready to fall in love. Talk about disillusion - I hated the wheel! Hard to treadle, jerky action, all the worst possible attributes for a dedicated fine-yarn spinner. I’m sure my face presented a picture! I left SAFF that year with a Majacraft Suzie Pro. Same family, but not the wheel I thought I’d be bringing home!

Suzie was a nice little workhorse, and in many ways I became a good spinner on her, spinning many different fibers and grists. I never really loved her, though. She was a tool, but not a partner, if you see what I mean. I still loved the look of the Rose, but couldn’t get past my horrible test-spin. Then I visited another vendor in a town nearby and in conversation described my experience with the Rose. She was horrified, since the Rose was her favorite wheel. It didn’t take long to figure out what the problem must have been. In the chaos of setting up a booth, the SAFF vendor must have reversed the treadle shafts. When we did the same thing on her Rose, it behaved exactly as I remembered.

I left the shop that day without Suzie, and with a brand-new Rose. Yep, I had the Suzie and all her stuff in the van (I was in the neighboring town to do a demonstration), and we traded – my almost-new Suzie for a brand-new Rose (plus a hundred dollars or so). We put it together before I left, so I was sure it worked properly, and I spent almost as much again on fiber to keep my new Rosie happy. I didn’t even look at another wheel for several years after that. Rosie and I were happy, and we spun everything together. My first cashmere (almost drove me crazy until I learned how to spin it), my first gossamer two-ply for my first full-size shawl for my first grandchild, my first worsted-weight singles were spun on Rosie. I never thought about getting another wheel, although sometimes Rosie was a bit modern-looking for demonstrations.

Then, again at SAFF, I saw my first Kromski Polonaise. “Truly beautiful wheel – shame it’s a single-treadle” summed up my reaction. Then they introduced the Symphony. I stopped buying fiber and started saving for another wheel. Syndy (I know, but I name all my wheels) arrived one spring evening about six months later, and I stayed up until well after midnight putting her together and oohing and aahing over her. It’s a good thing it was a Friday evening, because there was no way I was going to work the next day! I played happily for the next several weeks, trying out and breaking in my new ‘toy’. She hasn’t replaced Rosie, but I do sometimes choose a special project just for her. And since she looks like an ‘old-time’ spinning wheel she’s great for public demonstrations!

The best spinner may not have the most expensive wheel, but she will have a wheel that suits the yarns she likes to spin and her own body. Spinning isn’t fun if it makes you hurt, and the wrong wheel will do exactly that. For example, I’ll never own a Schacht wheel. I love the look of it, the design is wonderful, I own a Schacht loom and other Schacht weaving equipment that I love. But after ten minutes on a Schacht wheel my back is screaming. I finally decided that the wheel just doesn’t fit my body.

I’ve gotten sidetracked again! Before we leave this subject, let me add something else. I belong to two spinning groups, one of which has a very large membership. Members own and use everything from CD drop spindles to Golding wheels. One of the best spinners in the group does everything on a Babe professional. And I’ve spun on it – it’s a good castle wheel, with a good range of ratios and large bobbins. She loves it because it travels easily – she’s spending her retirement traveling to all the places she always wanted to see. Tools are important, but the best spinner doesn’t necessarily have the most expensive wheel. More important than the money spent is getting the wheel best suited to your spinning and your body. An expensive wheel is no good if you hurt after ten minutes of spinning on it.

What about quantity of spinning? Is the best spinner the one who spins the most yardage? I can hear you thinking “Of course not!” And you’re right. Pounds and pounds of skeins of lumpy-bumpy yarn are great if that’s what you want to spin. But if that’s all you’re capable of spinning, well, that’s a bit different.

I love exploring new fibers. Give me a brand-new fiber and some time to play and I’m in heaven. But all my explorations weren’t helping me learn how to spin a consistent yarn. I had trouble with that. A spinner friend suggested a remedy. It definitely helped get me over that hump, and in the process I also acquired some discipline. Her suggestion? That I spin enough of only one fiber for a sweater for myself. It made sense, so I started shopping for the requirement and made my choice. That was 32 ounces of medium wool sport-weight singles. I should only need 24 ounces for a sweater, but best to have extra. I bought two pounds of commercially prepared top so that the fiber supply would be consistent, and started spinning. 24 ounces (6 bobbins) and three months later I put back the first bobbin for a felted hat and spun another 4 ounces so the yarn would match. Then I knitted the sweater and wear it proudly.

Practice is necessary for improving any skill, and this episode taught me that it should be directed practice – you should consciously start out to learn something from your spinning. If you’re using a new fiber, buy an ounce or two extra and play a bit. YOU might want to spin a certain fiber very fine and even as a two-ply, but it may have other ideas and want to be thick and thin singles. Learning not to fight the fiber is part of what makes a good spinner.

On the other hand, the most technically perfect spinner in the world with a wheel perfectly suited to her won’t be able to make more than barely adequate yarn with poor fiber. In my opinion, being able to recognize and choose top-quality fiber is one of the hallmarks of the best spinners.

How do you learn what constitutes top-quality? Some learn by raising their own fiber animals, some by listening to and learning from shepherds and exploring fleeces at fiber events. Some short-cut by purchasing only top-quality prepared fiber from reputable vendors; some buy prepared fiber to supplement what they raise or buy from local sources. All good spinners spin samples from a lock before buying a fleece – your fingers are the best judge of fiber quality, and they must be trained. Once trained, they’re your best tool for the job.

Equally important to good spinning is excellent fiber preparation. You can’t spin an even singles from fiber ‘prepared’ by washing roughly (thus half-felting it), then tearing it apart with a drum-carder or hand cards. Poor cleaning and preparation can ruin any fleece. On the other hand, truly excellent fiber preparation makes spinning easy and the newest spinner look good. The best spinners know that, and spend the effort it takes to prepare fiber perfectly! Properly prepared fiber almost spins itself.

Another hallmark of the best spinners is being able to suit the fiber to the project. The best spinners would never choose an adult Lincoln fleece with a 48 Bradford count for a baby layette. They’d go for merino, Rambouillet, Cormo or Targhee with a Bradford count in the 70’s. Socks would be made from Romney or other 54-56’s wool with perhaps a bit of mohair for strength; a gossamer shawl would be made from silk, Shetland or long-staple Sea Island cotton. Can a good spinner make exceptions to these basic guidelines? Of course. But she will let her fingers be her guide, and back them up with quite a bit of sampling before a final decision is made.

Sampling isn’t a four-letter word, so don’t shy away and treat it shabbily! Sampling is mindful exploration – play if you prefer - and the best spinners do quite a bit of it. It doesn’t require a great deal of time or fiber, and yields an incredible amount of information for that minimal investment. So rev up your adventuresome side and play for awhile!

Want to spin alpaca socks for yourself? Think about it, play with an ounce or so and use it to make a pair of baby socks. You’ll eventually need them for a gift even if you can’t use them immediately. Borrow a baby or especially petite child to try them on. Now observe. Do they appear to be comfortable? Too warm? Too slippery? Too prickly? Watch, don’t assume. Now take them off your borrowed child and hand him/her back to mother. Do the socks spring back into shape, either immediately or after washing? Yes, I know what conventional wisdom says. But what does your sample say? Is there a way to spin or knit that will compensate for any observed problems? Is doing that more trouble than the project is worth to you?

To sum up: when you can answer these questions and make these determinations you’re well on your way to becoming one of the best spinners:

1. Do you know how to choose really top-quality fiber?
2. Do you know how to prepare that fiber properly to obtain the yarn you want to spin?
3. Is your chosen spinning tool (spindle or wheel) well-chosen to fit what you want to spin and your own personal ergonomic profile?
4. Is your fiber choice suited to the project you’re making, and do you know how and why to make any necessary modifications to your spinning technique for that project?

Do you need to work on one or more of these criteria? (If you call spinning work – I call it fun.) How can you best learn what you need to know? Do you need a class, or more practice time, or more information about breeds of fiber animals? Should you attend a fiber festival where there will be lots of vendors in order to try out new tools? You’re the only one who can answer these questions. So get to it! Shearing season is coming up and there will be lots of new fleeces to evaluate and spin!


Sherry Healey said...

You would be a perfect candidate for the new US Master Spinners Program. If interested, call Sherry Healey 580-369-0222 or

Verna said...

This is a wonderful post - thank you for taking the time to write it!

I have 2 Amos wheels - mainly because they fit me better than any other wheel I've tried. I can spin on them for hours with no strain and no stress. The Ashford Traveller I started with is a good wheel, but I can't spin for more than about an hour at a time on her.

Think I'll go browse your archives now - see what else I can learn from you!

Lisa said...

Wonderful post. Thank you. Someday, I hope to be where you are. And I have to agree with you about the Rose.....she is one fine lady.

Laurie said...

Thank you for an inclusive, territory covering post. Do you have any advice on spinning alpaca? I'm finding the lack of springiness makes drafting difficult.

The "learn on your own" aspect of spinning is both rewarding and frustrating. It is, to my mind, a guild skill that is better learned from other more experienced practitioners. Those opportunities don't occur often enough.

Carol said...

I tried a guild-supplied teacher whose technique was to spin a bit and then tell me to sit down and do what she did. So much for lessons. I learned the rest on my own and, because I can't use a traditional treadled wheel and instead use a Roberta electric spinner, most instruction doesn't translate I am happy exploring on my own. Who knew I would develop a lust for unusual breeds of sheep?

Pixiepurls said...

How learning to spin for you sounds a lot like how learning to quilt was for me. I can tell you in my first knitting class, well it was hell. It took me an hour to learn to cast on, but I liked the challange. Sometimes I have a very hard time learning the basics, and I find many books, tutorials leave out the verv very basic stuff they take for granted.

For example, when learning to quilt, I had never ever used a sewing machine before in my life. My husband got my one last Chanukah and well this is embarassing, or well not I supposed I shouldn't be embarrsed, but you know the basic concept of the two right sides together, then you sew on one side and then press it out and that is how you make it so the extra crap is on the bad side and then the front is just seamed together nicely.

Well I didn't get it, I had never sewn or seen anyone sewn and I had no clue. I was looking at this beggniner quilting book wondering when they sewed the stripes together, how did they make it so none of the raw ends stuck out on the top.

I went to work and showed the book to a lady and asked and she laughed (but was very sweet) and trook two peices of paper and showed me how the right sides together, sew then press back.

See in the book, it never stopped and explained that very basic thing. It took one week of reading, thinking and asking for me to sew my first block together!!

But despite all that I am so very proud, I taught myself to quilt through books and online forums and research. It was different then knitting for me.

I think that just sort of learning on you're own, and figuring some of it out yourself by asking and looking and reading, lets you be more creative and less restrained because you're trying to think of all the ways to get it to work. I say this because I am very inhibited with knitting, even 2 years later I am just not a brave or creative knitter, I am making some strides, designing my own patterns but I still am not terribly creative with it.

With my quilting I am very creative and I love it. So in that respect I am going to read to learn to spin, many many books! Ask some experiences people some questions and take advice, but I will not be doing anymore structured classes as I did with knitting, because I think I have more confidence and creativity when I sort it out myself!

TNWevr said...

Laurie, the only advice I can offer regarding alpaca is to be sure you keep the twist to a minimum. Just a little too much twist will turn lovely, soft alpaca fiber to wire! (Don't ask me how I learned that lesson, please - it was too humiliating!)

Carol, I'm sorry you had such an inattentive teacher - unfortunately it does happen. I hope I'm not like that...nope, I tend to obsess over things too much! I've been looking at electric spinners myself you like your Roberta?

Pixiepurls, I applaud your determination to do what you want! Your story of learning to quilt is inspiring, and just reinforces my belief that there is NO such thing as a silly question! Keep after the knitting - you'll get there, and probably sooner rather than later!

Rossana said...

Thank you for such an informative, thoughtful post. At MSW 2004, I was a very new knitter who told myself, "Self, why spend time spinning if I can buy ready yarn?" At MSW 2005, I bought my first drop spindle. Delicious! Soon enough, I wanted to learn how to spin on a wheel! This past weekend, I took my first spinning lesson and have decided on a wheel, the Kromski Symphony...with a Woolee Winder. I can't wait for it to arrive so I can start spinning!!! I anticipate many more adventures ahead, both with learning on my own, and with the help of others. Again, thanks for sharing your thoughts. =)

Carol said...

Not only did I have an inattentive teacher but the rented Ashford traditonal was squeezed into my car and when I got it home I had no idea how to adjust it to spin properly. I gave up then and eventually bought a Babe electric to learn on before the Roberta. I love the Roberta. I can put it on a table next to my chair with the on/off pedal under my leg and spin forever. I've spin only wool and mohair so far but wool from English Leicester to Shetland. It is easy to adjust with a touch to the dial and quiet.

MEsule said...

What a find! Great site. Thank you for your thoughtful work.

Can anyone out there tell me how to braid a drive band? One of my students needs a new one.

Rena Wilson said...


Anonymous said...

What a great site! Thank You, I love the look of the Rose also, but I have a Suzie Pro by Majacraft and I am loving it. I go back to her all of the time. I also have a Jensen Saxony which I love very much too. Both of these wheels have given me many a wonderful spinning hour. I am now looking to go to an electric spinner. I will always spin on my wonderful wheels but if I need to get a lot done fast I think that the electric is for me. Rowena Tank, Prescott, Arizona

Anonymous said...

Since I commented on this site I have fallen in love with the Roberta Electronic Spinner. Actually, I love it so much that I became a dealer for this spinner and I enjoy attending shows to show her off. It took awhile to get the idea of the electric or electronic spinner and after doing a lot of research I got it. I still love my Suzi Pro by Majacraft. Rowena Tank, Prescott, Arizona