Wednesday, February 01, 2006


My husband sometimes asks why I read so many different lists every day – several spinning, one tatting, several knitting and a couple of weaving lists deliver digests to me daily. I’ve tried to explain that I find the camaraderie at least as important as the information shared. Although he’s better than the average Joe at understanding how fiber artists and women network and support one another, he still doesn’t always ‘get it.’ But I truly enjoy the lists – the constant intertwining of newcomers and experience is fascinating and quite inspirational!

I’ve noticed one thing about spinning lists in particular (although all fiber lists show this tendency): newcomers all have basically the same questions and they all revolve around ‘rules.’ Most newbie questions boil down to “What am I supposed to do to get this result?” The long-time spinners on the list all pitch in and try to give them alternatives and options. But the advice is frequently conflicting and ambiguous. Why is it that way? Why can’t you simply give one clear set of directions and make it work every time?

Well, it has to do with the nature of spinning. Spinners aren’t machines, and if you put 100 spinners in a room, furnish them with identical wheels and fiber and tools, and ask them to spin a semi-worsted yarn of 10 wpi, you’ll get 100 slightly different yarns. If you watch how they go about producing that yarn, you’ll also see 100 slightly different techniques of fiber preparation, wheel setup, and spinning technique. I saw this in microcosm a few years back when a group of us did a sheep to shawl. I was the weaver for the six to eight spinners. Combining yarn from each spinner while maintaining a balanced plain-weave fabric was a challenge, even though each spinner was pretty good at spinning to the specified grist!

It’s like doing a presentation or a webpage. Some people like PowerPoint, some like Publisher, some Excel; while others prefer Corel or Photoshop or FrontPage. Any of those programs can get the job done, but different programs are better suited to different types of information. Additionally, some of us are more comfortable with one program than with another. Spinning is similar – there are many ways to get to the same end result, and each spinner chooses the technique best-suited to him/her as an individual.

I’ve talked about the variables in spinning before, but let’s re-visit them. Spinners are all different – different body types, different physical requirements and limitations and advantages. Wheels are also different, and some wheels are simply better suited to certain types of spinning (or spinners). You can adjust and finagle to make them spin other yarns, but it simply isn’t easy to spin gossamer-weight cotton on a wheel that’s designed for producing bulky, low-twist wool yarns. Individual animals are different – one fleece may be very different from another, and quality and fineness can vary from year to year on the same animal. As for plant fibers, different growing locales and conditions also give very different fibers. Try river-bottom flax and then mountain-grown flax – very different grist of individual fibers and very different color in the raw fiber gives a very different yarn to the same spinner with the same prep! Tools other than wheels are different, too – some are mechanized, and thus give a more consistent preparation; but hand tools will give widely variable results depending on the experience and technique of the user.

I can hear you now – “Are you saying there are NO rules?!?!” Well, yes and no. You shouldn’t try to spin long-wearing rug yarn from merino might be a rule. You shouldn’t spin a lacy camisole from Churro might be another. However, IF you look hard enough, there might be an individual Churro which would make a lovely camisole, and an individual merino whose fleece for that year would make great rug yarn. It isn’t likely, but it is possible; which would change the above statements from rules to suggestions.

Spinning is as much an art as a craft. Ask a potter how to get a specific shape and you’ll get several alternatives. Spinning is the same. There is always more than one way to get a given result. While this seeming abundance of alternatives might seem overwhelming to a beginner, get the basics down, shift your focus just a little and it becomes creative and freeing.

What are the basics? Spinning is very simple – get twist into fibers in order to make them hold together. There are no ‘rules’ about how to do that, and any number of techniques can be used to get the same end result – fibers that are held together by friction and compression. Think about all the types of yarn – worsted, smooth multi-ply yarns begging to be used in patterns of cables or lace; fuzzy, thick and thin single-ply yarns demanding to be an accent in sweater or purse; and everything in between. Can you think of different ways to get those yarns? No? Sure you can! How about one very basic difference? You can use either a spindle or a wheel to get exactly the same yarn. No way? Yes, way! It’s easy, it’s fun, and you can try it with any fiber.

Spindles and wheels (and carders and combs and hands) are tools. The only limitation to any tool is the skill of the tool-user – the spinner. I do combination spinning all the time – part of the fiber on the spindle that travels with me everywhere, and part on the wheel at home. I can match almost any yarn spun on one with the other. But there are a couple of limitations for me at this point in my spinning career – for really gossamer-fine spinning of down fibers like cashmere I prefer a supported spindle. I have trouble matching that fineness and delicacy consistently with down fibers on my wheels. But I DO normally use a wheel to ply those spindle-spun singles, both because I can get more on a bobbin than I can on a spindle and because it’s easier for me to control the amount of plying twist on the wheel.

On the other hand, I’ll normally use the wheel to make softly-spun bulky singles. I don’t like heavy spindles, and own only one for a simple reason – using them for more than a few minutes hurts. But I can stop and start my double-treadle wheels easily using a large whorl and slow treadling speed to make a fairly consistent bulky single. It works for me, so I do it this way. But these techniques may not suit you! Your favorite tool for spinning soft-twist, bulky singles might be a Navaho spindle. If so, use it! If the yarn is what you want, you’re spinning it ‘properly.’ Can you refine your techniques and procedures to get the same result more easily? Perhaps. That’s another reason to keep reading and studying and sampling. Another spinner’s method may spark an idea in you!

Spinners will tell you that different fibers require different spinning techniques. You don’t spin cotton in the same way as wool, or wool in the same way as silk. Does that mean you can only spin silk, for example, one way? Nope. You can use silk roving, caps or hankies to spin anything from bulky singles to hair-fine thread with any amount of twist you choose as long as the end result hangs together. You can use any wheel or spindle at any ratio or weight in order to do so. But you WILL have to modify your technique with each tool in order to obtain your desired result.

Can you spin cotton thread on a Country Craftsman? Yes, but it will take longer and require more adjustments on the part of the spinner than spinning the same cotton on a charka. So if you have a charka, why not use it? If you don’t own a charka, go ahead and tinker!

Are there limitations? Only those imposed by the laws of physics and the spinner’s own body. For example, the spinner on that Country Craftsman should be prepared to treadle 5 or 6 times for each inch of cotton thread (at a 3:1 ratio, 5 to 6 treadles would put a reasonable 15-18 twists per inch into the cotton). If she/he doesn’t, the resulting cotton thread won’t hang together because there won’t be enough twist inserted to generate sufficient friction and compression to keep the fibers together. That’s a limitation that the spinner might want to address by choosing to use a different tool. Of course, if part of the idea is to incorporate gentle aerobic exercise into spinning time, this might be a good method!

“So you’re saying that there really aren’t any rules at all?” Well, yes, pretty much. That’s one reason why I said there was an artistic component involved in spinning. There are techniques, suggestions and guidelines, some of which I’ve touched on above (or before) but there is only one hard and fast rule – it isn’t spinning if there’s no twist! If you have incorporated twist into a fiber, it’s spun. That has another ‘twist’ to it (pun more or less intended) – if you like the yarn you’re spinning, you’re spinning just fine! Tell the self-appointed spinning police to go pester somebody else.

Instead of looking at the lack of ‘rules’ in spinning as frightening and bewildering, shift your focus a little. Spinning is a craft, yes, and it does have one rule. But it’s also an art, and in art there are few hard and fast rules – only alternatives and possibilities to explore! So use the tools and techniques you find comfortable. Time and practice will almost certainly present you with alternative tools and techniques, and don't be hesitant about trying them; one of the best things about spinning is its simplicity and the way in which that simplicity encourages individual experimentation and expression.


delia said...

De-lurking! Your post is very timely. I am a new spinner and enjoying the whole process of learning and exploring the art and craft of spinning. I learned from an amazing woman and much of what she taught me is reflected in your post today. Thank you for your insight; I have learned so much from reading your blog.

TNWevr said...

I'm glad you've enjoyed the blog, Delia - comments like yours let me know that I'm not talking in a vacuum!

It sounds as though you did indeed have an amazing teacher - one who gave you the basic skills and more importantly the confidence needed to let you explore spinning with enthusiasm!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. I found it extremely helpful and informative. I am also a new spinner and will just say that Delia has already said what I wanted too- so let me just say "ditto" and thank you again