I love to spin, and prefer to spin fine. Show me or allow me to purchase a very fine Shetland, Merino, or merino cross fleece and my mind happily explores the possibilities while my fingers are busily at work seeing just how fine I can spin this particular fleece. I bought my current spinning wheels based largely on their ability to spin very fine yarns in a wide variety of fibers. I’ve even been known to forsake my wheels entirely in order to spin the very finest of yarns on light-weight spindles.
Why do I have this fascination with fine spinning? Possibly it’s tied together with my love of lace; the most ethereal of knitted laces are made with gossamer yarns that are little thicker than 6 to 8 fibers twisted together into two plies. Maybe I just like the attention it garners at public demonstrations and from other spinners. I don’t know why I enjoy it so much, but I do.
Every spinner is different. We bring different experiences, expectations, tools and physical limitations to our yarn production. I’m not going to take photos or videos of my own spinning method and try to tell you that this is the only (or even the best) way to produce gossamer yarns. I am going to tell you the various steps I go through and the equipment I use to do so. But your methods will almost certainly differ in several particulars. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that you like the yarn you’re making, and find it suitable for your purposes. Modern individuals seem to expect a ‘recipe’ approach, and I don’t really do ‘recipes’ for spinning any more than I do for knitting, weaving, or cooking. Still I hope interested spinners will locate these notes, find them somewhat useful, and explore the possibilities further.
First and foremost, choose a fine, sound fleece. No mid-range fleeces (Lincoln lamb, Romney crosses and Wensleydale all have their uses, but in my opinion this isn’t one of them), and no weak spots or sun-bleached tips. Shetland lamb fleece, fine merino or merino crosses like Rambouillet or Targhee, fine Finn…you get the idea. You’ll spend a bit more for these fleeces, and they’ll be worth every penny. If you can find them in combed top from commercial sources, go for it – you’ll pay around $8.00 per ounce, but you can get a 60-inch square shawl from 4-6 ounces of top.
My current fine-spinning champ is a Shetland lamb fleece from a shepherd in Ohio. Staple length is between 4 and 5 inches, fineness is between 13 and 15 microns, crimp is moderate. Unfortunately the sheep wasn’t coated and I lost way too much of this beautiful fleece to burrs and hayseed contamination, but what’s left is lovely. On a 15-gram drop spindle my singles are in the 95 wpi range. On the wheel, the best I can manage is 75-80 wpi singles.
I can hear the next question – how do I prep a fleece for this sort of fine spinning? If you want the finest yarn you have to choose the finest portions of the fleece. That takes going over a fleece almost lock-by-lock. So my first step is to move outdoors and spread the fleece out on an old sheet on an overcast day. I have a deck that’s ideal for this, since the breezes are blocked by the house itself, built-in seating and almost-solid side panels.
I use two sheets and a small laundry basket. Sitting between them, I take a handful of fleece from the skirted fleece and pick through it. Average locks go onto the second sheet; really fine locks go into the basket. If you’ve laid out the fleece in such a way that you can discern the various parts like neck, saddle, back, belly and legs it will go faster. Unfortunately, this isn’t always easy to do, and you will frequently have to simply try your best to get the entire fleece laid out in a single layer. Either way, start at one end of the fleece and work your way through. Take your time. This can easily and pleasantly consume an entire afternoon, so ship the husband and children off for that length of time – they can go fishing or play in the park.
Once you’ve separated the fleece, keep it that way. Store the ‘average’ portion (which may be pretty fantastic, but isn’t the absolute tip-top portion of the fleece) in your favorite container, either washed or in the grease. Take appropriate measures for moth and critter control. Then move on to your basket containing the best of this fleece. You’ll be surprised at how little wool you have in there – if there’s more than 6-8 ounces you have a truly spectacular fleece!
You can, of course, comb or flick the contents of the basket and spin at this point. I don’t really care for spinning in the grease, and find spinning this sort of relatively high-twist yarn in the grease makes it quite difficult to get the resulting yarn clean. But it’s your choice.
If you choose to clean the fleece before spinning, you’ll want to do so in a way that keeps the lock structure as intact as possible. There are two really good possibilities. Many spinners favor laying the locks out on a strip of netting or illusion about 18 inches wide and 36 inches long, folding the netting over the locks to form a sandwich, and running either a line of basting stitches or safety pins through the layers to keep the locks intact. Others roll the netting sandwich, fasten with a rubber band or string, and then wash. I’ve tried both, and had problems with getting the fleece completely clean. That may have more to do with my rather hard water than any failing in the method, since friends with soft water get perfectly good results.
The second way is to do it by hand, lock by lock, and this is my preferred method. The locks are perfectly clean and well-preserved. I set up an assembly line, starting with two large pasta pots of water brought to a boil on the stove. On the counter are the basket of fleece, three dishpans (or one dishpan and the double sink) and a large towel or three at the far end. Laundry detergent is close at hand, along with a candy thermometer and thick rubber gloves.
Put 3-4 inches of the hottest water you can get from the tap into the first container. Mix in enough detergent to make the water feel slippery (I use about 1 cup of liquid detergent). Now add boiling water from the stove until the water temperature is between 160 and 180 degrees on the candy thermometer. Make up the other two containers with water of the same temperature, but without detergent. Now start more water on the stove – you’ll probably need it to replenish as you go along. In order to clean fleece well the main thing necessary is HOT water. So keep it at least 160 degrees.
Put on the gloves and pick up the first lock. Lay it in the dishpan of soapy water. Don’t let it drift apart as it gets wet, though – you want to swish it through the water just enough so that the lock gets clean, but not so much that it begins to felt. Now remove it from the soapy water and do the same thing in each of the rinse containers. Lay the lock on the towel to begin to dry, go back and do the same thing again with the next lock.
Sound tedious? It can be if you’re working on a surface of the wrong height, but as long as your ‘washing station’ is set up properly it isn’t too bad. And when finished you have rows of beautifully clean locks on the towels. I place the towels in the basement on a drying rack made from an old window screen laid across sawhorses with the locks still on them – everything is dry by the next day. Then I pick up each lock and put it back into the cleaned basket, ready for spinning.
While the clean locks are drying is a good time to go over your tools. If you plan on flick-carding (and that’s the best way I’ve found to spin frog-hair), make sure your flicker or dog comb is at hand and clean. Find or make a lap cloth that’s thick enough to withstand the flicking and protect your leg. I use a tripled piece of heavy cotton-twill cloth – one side white, one side medium blue, and an extra layer in the middle – that’s about a yard square. Edges are serged together and corners are rounded. So far it’s worked well, especially if I wear denim or some other heavy twill skirt or jeans. A piece of leather will also work well.
Is this necessary? Perhaps not – but the one time I tried flicking locks without any protection between the flicker and my leg I got a very interesting pattern of puncture wounds and a tetanus shot. It served me right for agreeing at the last minute to do a public demonstration on a just-sheared grease fleece from a local flock.
If you’re spindle-spinning, try out your spindle and do any tweaking necessary. If you’re using a wheel, this is the perfect time for a tune-up. Check all the nuts, bolts and screws and make sure they’re tight. Check the alignment of the drive wheel and whorl – is your drive band traveling in a straight line? Clean the wheel well, polish any finished wood parts, and be sure you lubricate any place necessary – don’t forget the bar that supports your treadles. If you use leather, lubricate that and tighten any leather ties.
Check your tensioning system to be sure it is working well. On double-drive wheels you’ll want to change over to a fine, smooth linen or cotton drive band. Try them out until you find something that will just turn everything smoothly. This seems silly, perhaps, but it will help. Thick drive bands can sometimes be a little too grabby for spinning really fine yarns, breaking the yarn frequently. I’ve had the best luck with size 10 or 20 crochet cotton. I’ve occasionally had to use beeswax on the drive bands, but not very often; first try it without.
On Scotch-tension wheels, try to get the lightest spring available. You don’t want something stiff enough to pull on bulky-weight singles. Check on your wheel manufacturer’s website, or in the hardware section of your local home center. You want something made from fine-gauge wire with about 1/16 inch between each wrap. That will give you the absolute minimum tension on the take-up band. Change your brake band to something very light and fine. I use braided fishing line in a 30-pound test size, and have never had a problem. I change it out every couple of years when it becomes frayed. If your tensioning knob is loose, wrap a bit of fiber around the portion that goes into the mother-of-all or the table to provide some grab, or rough up the surface a bit with a wood or nail file. But be careful with this - you don’t want to overdo it! What you’re after is fine control, not a tensioning knob that no longer fits the hole drilled for it!
Fine yarns have less tensile strength because they have fewer fibers. You need to compensate for that. A large-core lace bobbin puts less strain on fine threads, and a lace flyer orifice is smaller in diameter so that the threads vibrate less as they go through. If you don’t have a lace flyer and bobbin, try some of the following hints:
To make a temporary lace bobbin, pick up some pipe insulation at the hardware store. Cut a length that will fit tightly over the core of your bobbin, snuggling up nicely to the ends. Before you slip it into place, tie a long leader of size 20 crochet cotton around the core. Now slip the pipe insulation over the bobbin core, bringing your leader out through the slit in the insulation. You now have a perfect lace bobbin for an investment of a couple of dollars.
If you have a delta orifice wheel, don’t despair. In my experience Delta orifices actually aren’t too bad for lace yarns. You may need to make no adjustments at all. However, if you start to spin, the yarn snaps every yard or so and you’re using a delta orifice, suspicion is recommended. Look over the wheel again – get another spinner to check it if possible. Adjust take-up, drive bands, etc. and try again. Still having trouble? Check with your wheel manufacturer or a good spinning wheel replacement parts person – you may indeed need a lace flyer in order to spin really fine yarns on that wheel.
Different wheels have different bobbin tensioning systems. I’m particularly thinking about the Louet wheels, but there are almost certainly others out there with a very strong take-up. I don’t own one of them, so all I can advise is to ask questions on the TechSpin list or talk to your dealer. I have seen various hints and tips, but didn’t pay a great deal of attention since they didn’t apply to me. In case you’re wondering, I currently own an Ashford Traveller, a Majacraft Rose and a Kromski Symphony. All are scotch tension or convertible wheels with a double treadle because I like that setup. But that doesn’t mean you have to have one of those wheels to spin gossamer yarn! You can spin fine yarns with any wheel as long as you’re willing to tinker a little and learn how to tweak your own wheel to get the results you want.
Now that your wheel is tuned-up and ready to go, let’s talk about your spinning chair. It should fit not only your body when sitting, but also when spinning. I can’t use a chair with arms, for example – they get in my way. But I do need a chair that’s height-adjustable – all three of my wheels have different-height orifices and ‘live’ on different surfaces, and that means that I do better if I can tweak my seat height. Could I purchase a different chair for each wheel? Yes, but I didn’t. Instead I bought a well-cushioned task chair with excellent, adjustable lumbar support and adjustable seat height and tilt. I move it to whichever wheel I want to use right then.
Be sure to pay attention to the ergonomics of your spinning. When treadling, your knees should remain at 90 degrees to your body. Arm motions should be fluid and as centered as possible. Try to avoid shifting from one hip to another or twisting your spine and you’ll spin with less effort and no backache. Sit comfortably, and don’t forget to get up and move around every 20-30 minutes. I actually set a timer, or make myself get up during commercials if I’m watching TV while spinning.
All right, all the equipment is ready and your locks are dry. Sit in your spinning chair, placing your fiber on one side of your chair (the same side as that of the hand in which you hold your fiber). Put the cover on your lap, pick up your comb or flicker, and get ready to spin some lace-weight yarn.
Grasp a lock of wool at one end – either one. It doesn’t matter too much if you use a dog comb or a flicker. If you’re using a comb, pretend you’re working on a small child’s hair – use smooth movements, starting at the tip and working up to the center of the lock. If using a flicker, don’t brush from lock center to tip – tap the flicker gently with only the slightest of downward strokes, again working from the tips toward the center of the lock. Working this way will break off any brittle tips, work out any tangles, and give you beautifully- aligned fibers.
When the lock is perfectly open, switch ends and do the same from the other end of the lock. I prepare a single lock at a time, spinning immediately after I flick each lock. If you prefer to flick several, that’s fine – stack them on a small table or your lap. But try not to flick more than you’ll spin in a half-hour. They’ll just get disarranged and require flicking again.
You want open, perfectly-aligned locks. If you can’t see your fingers or the lap cloth through the fibers after flicking, separate the lock and work on smaller portions. Remember what you’re after here – no more than 3-8 fibers in your singles yarns. A single lock, which contains well over 150 fibers, will take me somewhere between 5 and 10 minutes to spin.
When you’re ready to begin your singles, attach the leader to the lock of fiber by your preferred method. I start out by tying a slip knot in the leader, threading a half-dozen fibers through the loop, doubling them back on themselves and tightening down the slip-knot loop around the fibers. Then I begin treadling gently clockwise, allowing twist to build up in the doubled fibers, and only begin to draft when they have plenty of twist.
That first lock may spin fairly quickly as you adjust take-up, treadling speed and drafting speed. Don’t worry about it; just continue to thin down the singles until you reach the grist you want. I look at that first lock or two as ‘play time’, and explore possibilities. When I’m sure everything is set up properly, I’ll start to consciously reduce the number of fibers in my drafting triangle.
Hold the fiber lightly. You need to have control over the fiber supply, but you don’t want to have to pull fibers from the supply with your other hand, either. The twist should flow smoothly into the drafting triangle.
Warning: Heresy is about to be written! I do not insist that the inchworm method is the only way to produce even yarns. It is the easiest way for a spinner to gain the control necessary to learn the feel of producing fine yarns, but to me it’s a difficult, tension-inducing way to spin. If you see me spinning inchworm method, you can bet that I’m spinning either a new-to-me fiber or a down fiber such as cashmere. I mostly use what could best be called a modified long-draw method. While this may not produce what a technical purist would call a worsted yarn, the yarn I produce looks and behaves like a worsted yarn. With only a half-dozen fibers at most in the singles, it’s almost impossible to spin anything except a worsted yarn, anyway, especially when using lock-flicking as a preparation method.
I’ve heard it said that you can’t put too much twist into these very fine yarns. I don’t agree. The goal for very fine yarn is the same as that for thicker yarns – soft-feeling, well-wearing yarns for use in making cozy, warm wearables. Yarns that are extremely hard-twist have their uses, i.e. carpets and doilies and some fabrics, but I don’t care for wearing them. Control your twist. Depending on the fiber, you’ll want singles with somewhere between 12 and 25 twists per inch. How do you know how much twist you need? Sample.
There’s no substitute for sampling to gain information. Yes, you can check with other spinners, weigh their answers and decide what you want to do, but you’ll still have to sample. Whether you make a small (short) sample or a full-size sample (an entire bobbin or more of yarn) is up to you. These days I tend to feel that my spinning and knitting time is too short for me to spend it working on an unsuccessful project. It’s much better to spend a small amount of time and materials up front sampling in order to get exactly what I want. In the past, however, I was a card-carrying member of the full-size sample club. Like almost everything else in spinning, the choice is yours.
What sort of information can you gain by sampling? Let’s take a look. You’ve spun an entire lock at 25 wpi. This is a Romney lamb fleece, by the way, with a micron count of about 30 and medium crimp. You want to do a lace-weight shawl, with two-ply yarn of about 30 wpi. You’ve put a medium-fast whorl on your wheel which will give you a ratio of 12:1. The singles are measuring 35 wpi, but your two-ply sample is 20 wpi. You’ve got about 6 fibers in your singles, but the yarn is still larger in grist than you wanted. It feels a bit harsh, as well. How can you decrease the grist and improve the feel? This is where sampling comes in. I’d try the following steps, in order, to try to accomplish it.
First, slow down the wheel. A ratio of 8:1 will give me more time to fiddle with the drafting, and perhaps get 4 fibers down to 3 or even 2. That will decrease the grist. A slower speed may also correct the feel of the yarn, softening it up nicely. A half-lock later you discover that this isn’t working. You’re treadling yourself to death in order to get enough twist in and the yarn is drifting apart. That’s too soft!
All right, speed up the wheel. Perhaps you need a ratio of 20:1. You should be able to control the drafting, and the faster speed will help with the treadling. You’ll have to be careful not to put in too much twist, though, and make the yarn harsh again. Let’s finish up that lock. Nope! This definitely isn’t going to work. Too much twist is making the yarn feel like wire. But the grist is about right – 50 wpi singles.
What’s a good compromise? Do you have a 16:1 whorl? If so, try that. If not, go back to the 12:1 whorl and concentrate on your drafting. After the sampling you’ve done, you may find it easier to control the number of fibers in the drafting zone. You should definitely be able to keep the yarn soft.
All of the above is a process you should make automatic when starting a new spinning project. Play with your fiber for a few minutes. See what you can do with it – how much twist will it accept without turning to wire? How little twist can you put in without the yarn drifting apart? What’s the happy medium that gives you a soft, strong yarn? When you get to that happy medium, is the resulting yarn suited for your project?
Now I’ll let you in on a secret – if you have to go through the above scenario and still compromise to get a usable yarn you’ve probably chosen the wrong fleece. How many of you spotted that? It shouldn’t take that much work to get the yarn you want for a given project once you know something about spinning. Romney lamb can be wonderfully soft, but for the sort of yarn you want, a micron count of 30 is too high. You need something in the 20’s, preferably less than 25. Put the Romney away until you want to make a sweater or some socks. It will be perfect for that, probably spun at that 12:1 ratio and three-plied to a grist of about 16-18 wpi. But if you want a fine lace shawl, try for a Shetland fleece with a micron count in the 20-23 range.
Are there other possibilities? Of course. Shetland is traditional for lace shawls because the fibers are generally fine with an average crimp. So you can spin it fine, knit it into a crisp-appearing lace, and block it severely to show off that lace. The lower crimp will help it hold that blocking until it again gets wet. But Shetland isn’t your only choice. Targhee is a good choice for fine yarns, as are Rambouillet, Cormo, CVM, Polwarth, Romeldale, Bluefaced Leicester, Finn and Corriedale.
The queen of fineness, merino, is easy to spin to gossamer-weight. The best merino spins like butter into a singles of more than 70 wpi. The 20-30 crimps per inch factor can present some challenges with blocking finished items, though. If you choose merino, you should knit your shawl to the finished dimensions and block only gently; it will be wonderfully soft. But if you knit the shawl the usual 15-20% less than the finished dimensions and block it out, three weeks later it will again measure the unblocked dimension, especially if you live in a humid climate. The culprit? That lovely crimp. This can be offset somewhat by blending merino with silk, alpaca, or both. But you still need to sample carefully, block, and measure your blocked sample both immediately and several days later. Surprises aren’t too difficult to cope with before you cast on, but can be quite unwelcome after you’ve cast off!
All right, you’ve chosen the fleece, sorted the locks, washed them and let them dry. You’ve sampled and finally gotten about half of your singles spun – almost a full lace-bobbin of 2 ounces. Stop and put that bobbin aside. Set up another and spin again until it’s full. Put both bobbins on a lazy kate, put a very small amount of tension on the two bobbins, and set the kate well behind your chair on the same side as your lead hand.
Yes, I know you can ply from a ball. I do exactly that quite often with yarns larger than gossamer, since I don’t like to have leftover ends. Leftovers mean splices in the knitting, and I don’t like to splice. But in this case plying from a ball is potentially a huge mistake. You’ve spent a month or more spinning 4 ounces of gossamer singles. Gossamer singles are fragile, and have little tensile strength compared to heavier-grist singles. So don’t add the additional stress of winding into a ball and then unwinding again under variable tension to ply from that ball – they’ll break easily and tangle even more easily! Ply from two bobbins instead – you’ll be happier and won’t lose half your singles to tangles. Ask me how I know - but be prepared for a long tale of woe!
Ply slowly and carefully. I’m not normally the type of spinner who counts every treadle for a given measure of yarn, but when plying this stuff it can be quite helpful. Of course small changes in twist can be corrected when skeining the yarn, but the less you must compensate the better. I usually slow down the wheel when plying; if I’ve spun at a 16:1 ratio I’ll ply at 12:1 in order to give myself time to gently pull the singles from the kate and count the treadle strokes.
You’ve spun the singles on lace bobbins. You can ply on lace bobbins, too, or you can give a regular bobbin a try. The advantage to plying on a regular bobbin is that it should hold an entire 4 ounces of plied yarn (unless your wheel is one of those with smaller-capacity bobbins). So you’ll have no splices or ends with which to contend in the knitting. The same rule of thumb applies, though – if you find your yarn breaking every yard or two, switch to a lace bobbin.
Once the plying is finished, it’s time to skein, tie and wash the finished yarn. I use a 2-yard niddy-noddy, release the bobbin tension and stand about 10 feet away from the wheel with the finished yarn coming over the top of the flyer. Of course, the Majacraft has a sliding yarn guide. When using a wheel with flyer hooks, you may be better served to put your bobbin on a tensioned lazy kate before you start making your skein.
Skein smoothly. Standing some distance away from the bobbin allows any variation in the twist to even out, making for a better yarn. Skein ties should definitely be used for these gossamer yarns. If your usual sport-weight skeins are tied in 2 places, double that on lace-weight and put a tie every foot or so on gossamer yarn. Don’t tie tightly, especially if you plan to dye your yarn. But multiple ties will help keep the yarn untangled through the washing process. I use a smooth, high-twist cotton yarn to tie wool yarns because it’s easy to see and slip off when it’s time to untie.
Wash well in really hot water. You want to get out any remaining dirt from the fleece as well as any spinning oil you’ve used and the oils from your hands. Rinse in hot water, remove excess moisture either by using the spin cycle of the washing machine (but don’t let water spray on the skein) and hang somewhere shady to dry. Weighting the skein shouldn’t be necessary, but you may certainly do so if you prefer.
When my skeins are dry I usually abuse them to full, thicken and soften the yarn slightly. This doesn’t involve anything nearly as drastic as it sounds. I take the skeins and whack them on a table edge a few times, moving my hand-hold (and thus the impact point) around the skein. After that, it’s time to wind the skein or skeins into center-pull balls and start to swatch some of the lovely lace patterns available while dreaming of the finished scarf or shawl.
Hamster floss and frog hair aren’t difficult to spin. They are painstaking, and thus not as soothing as spinning larger-grist yarns. But gossamer yarns have their own sort of meditative quality for those who choose to explore them. And the end result of the process is so beautiful that you find yourself looking for fleeces and tops that can be spun in this manner.