I’m presently teaching a local spinning class. It’s been going on for a while now, and the students are past the beginner’s usual over- and under-spun bobbles. They’re at the point where they’re comfortable with the process of making yarn. Each of them has his or her ‘default style’ of yarn, I’ve noticed. Some have spun fairly even, fairly fine yarns almost from the beginning, others spent weeks on trying to smooth out their lumpy, bumpy yarns before they settled on sport- or worsted-weight singles.
Surprising, to me, was the fact that those on drop spindles started spinning even yarns more quickly than those with spinning wheels. After reflection, though, I can see why that might be so. A spindle gives you time to think about the process, and lets you slow down each step to a crawl, if necessary. Park and draft has a lot going for it as a beginning spinning method, and is much easier to do on a spindle. Of course it’s possible to do park-and-draft on a wheel! But those with wheels have a tendency to keep treadling, I’ve noticed, trusting that it will all work itself out in the plying (which it frequently does).
Last meeting the question I’ve been waiting for arose, as usual from the most adventurous member of the group. “How do I spin the yarn for an entire sweater?” she asked. So we began working on the next step in spinning – spinning consistent yarn for a specific project. I thought you might be interested in some of what I told the group.
Spinning just for the sake of spinning is fine. You’ll do a lot of that in the beginning, and you should. Practice makes perfect, and the more practice you get as a spinner, the better spinner you’ll become. But sooner or later you’ll decide you want to spin enough of the same thing to do an entire project in your handspun yarn. So where do you start? Naturally enough, you should start with the project!
I got some wonderful advice when I started working on consistent spinning. My spinning mentors (I was lucky enough to have two really good ones) both agreed on the best way to manage it. So I ordered three pounds of 54’s roving from a good supplier and started spinning, aiming for worsted-weight singles. I’ve described that process before – it was quite a challenge for a dedicated frog-hair spinner like me! No, I don’t need three pounds of yarn for a sweater. I only need about 18-20 ounces. But it took at least 40 of those 48 ounces of fiber to get the 24 ounces I targeted as my needed amount for a sweater. The first two 4-ounce bobbins varied widely, from my ‘unconscious’ frog-hair to bulky-weight ‘compensation’ singles. I don’t think I spun so much thick and thin when I WAS a beginning spinner! But I finally settled into the groove, and eventually found that spinning worsted-weight singles was even pleasurable! The sweater wasn’t one of my successes (and I need to re-knit it one of these days), but the spinning lesson was perfect. The upshot of all this digression? Order or have on-hand at least twice the total amount of prepared fiber you’ll need for your chosen first project. If you’re using a raw fleece, you may need as much as four times the amount you’ll need, depending on how much waste you have in the washing and preparation processes. So an entire 8-pound Targhee fleece may be just enough for a single next-to-skin sweater!
And before you cringe, you won’t have to continue that way. Now I try to make sure I have about 10-25% more prepared fiber than I need for a project. The ‘extra’ gives me sampling yardage, ‘changing my mind’ yardage, or ‘I have to have a matching _____’ yardage. But you still need to allow for processing/preparation waste. My own rule of thumb is to buy at least twice as much raw fiber as I’ll need prepared for the project, and it’s always worked so far.
All right, you’ve chosen your project; now it’s time to choose your fiber. That’s one of the most important choices you’ll make. Guidelines for fiber types for specific projects are exactly that – guidelines. You can ignore them if you choose – there are no spinning police. But you really should take a look at them; they’re guidelines for a reason. Let’s run through some of them, and the reasons behind them.
Outerwear sweaters, mittens and socks generally use medium fibers with a Bradford count from 48-54. Yes, you can use superfine merino, but there will be trade-off – you won’t get the wear you will from 54’s, and you’ll have more pilling, even if you 4-ply the yarns. Medium-staple fibers mixed with alpaca, silk, or even tencel can add drape, warmth or shine, if you prefer. Angelina can add sparkle. The nice thing about most of these medium fibers is that they have a certain amount of natural shine, and they generally take dyes beautifully. Spun medium-fine and plied to balance, these are the workhorses of the spinning world, giving long wear and beautiful results to knitting projects from lacy 2-ply cardigans to cabled 4-ply Aran pullovers.
Next-to-skin wear other than socks, like warm sweaters, gloves, scarves and hats usually call for finer fibers, those in the 60’s Bradford range. That’s a compromise. You’ll get some pilling, and you’ll need to watch areas like underarms for wear, but you won’t have to wear a shirt under the sweater, and your hands will stay warm even playing in the snow. These are perfect places to blend exotics. A 60/40 mixture of Rambouillet or merino and alpaca will keep you toasty warm even if you’re exceptionally cold-natured and adding 20% of angora or kid mohair to your wool may have you stripping to your undershirt indoors.
Certain types of projects require specific wools. Shawls can be made with wonderful drape and softness from an alpaca/silk blend. Soft, cuddly fibers are a natural for shawls for babies and special occasions, and can be wonderfully comforting anytime. Generally, however, spinning shawl-knitters choose something with a less-pronounced crimp for their finest wedding-ring shawls. Why? Merino is great for many uses, but I seldom choose it for a shawl. That lovely crimp blocks out to almost 40 percent larger than the unblocked size. And two weeks (or one humid day) later, the shawl will again be the unblocked size. By all means use merino for a shawl – but plan to knit the shawl to the size you want it to be when worn. Shetland, that staple for fine shawls, has less crimp than merino – in fact, its crimp is more like that of the average medium wool – and is almost as fine in diameter as merino. This gives lace a crisp hand, and blocking holds until the next time you wash and block, even in high humidity. So check out the recommended fibers for your project, and figure out why they’re recommended – then make your own decision!
Exotics are wonderful for many projects. Knitters know to be aware of their tendency to grow either lengthwise or widthwise, and spinners can compensate for this by blending them will lovely, elastic, fine wool. You can generally stretch those exotic (and expensive) fibers at least four times further than you thought by blending them with wool in a 25/75 proportion by weight. The look and feel and drape will be present, but the wear may be much improved. However, there is little more sinfully luscious than a 100% down fiber scarf tucked around the collar of your winter coat, or a 100% silk shawl to throw around your shoulders in frigid summer air-conditioning. My own favorite winter hats are made from 100% alpaca. One is a rather whimsical wide-brimmed felted creation of burgundy-dyed handspun, and the other a snug, natural brown-colored double-layered stocking cap with a lace inset that’s almost too warm in East Tennessee!
All right, you’ve chosen your project and your fiber. You’ve probably also chosen your preparation – worsted prep (combed fibers) for harder-wearing items like socks and barn sweaters, woolen-prep (carded fibers) for warm hats, mittens, and sweaters. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can spin carded fibers into something that’s ‘good enough’ for a project that should use worsted fibers. It may spin well, knit nicely, and look great at first, but you won’t get the wear you would from equally well-spun worsted-prep fibers. Preparation matters. It matters in the spinning, in the knitting or weaving, and in the finished item. Properly-prepared fibers spin easily and pleasantly. Poorly-prepared fibers fight you every step of the way. So take the time to do proper fiber preparation!
And don’t think that buying commercially-processed fibers lets you out of preparation completely! Top must sometimes be split lengthwise to spin easily, and it will always need to be fluffed up and pre-drafted to some extent. Roving should also be loosened up and pre-drafted a bit for easier spinning. Skipping this step in the interest of saving time is one of those things that will inevitably bite you.
Are we finally to the spinning? Not quite. Before you sit down to start spinning your 2 pounds of fiber (or more), take a minute to think about what kind of yarn you want. If you’re going to do a knitted and fulled project like my floppy alpaca hat or those wonderful, ubiquitous FiberTrends slippers, you’ll want a fluffy, bulky singles or 2-ply yarn spun from worsted-prep fibers (think about why). If your project is a tightly-cabled fisherman sweater, your desire will be for finely-spun worsted singles that can be 4-plied into a lovely, round yarn that will make your stitch details pop! The requirements for socks will vary, but generally will be finely-spun worsted singles that can be either 3-plied or cabled for abrasion resistance to a fingering-weight yarn.
Now that you know what sort of yarn you want to spin, set up the wheel or choose a spindle. Learn to use your whorls – they’re your friends. Yes, you can spin cotton on a 6:1 whorl. But you’ll spin it more easily and pleasantly at a 20:1 ratio. Conversely, if you want lace-weight Shetland singles, you probably won’t want to spin at a 16:1, but at a 6:1 ratio. That way you’ll have time to pay attention to your drafting triangle and stop when you find a slub that’s trying to sneak into your lovely, even yarn. And you won’t over-spin your singles to the point where your 2-ply will corkscrew back on itself!
As for choosing a spindle…the general guideline is to choose a lighter spindle for finer yarns. There is one extremely good reason for this – a heavy spindle can literally snap gossamer yarns! But you do use a fairly heavy supported spindle to spin extremely fine singles. The difference is whether the singles themselves or the table/floor/spinner’s leg is supporting the weight of that spindle. I have a couple of very light-weight spindles that I can use to drop-spindle cotton as long as it’s Sea Island, pima or something else fairly long-stapled. Those same spindles don’t work well at all for acala or upland cotton unless I support them. But then they usually aren’t heavy enough to turn well against the resistance of that support. So for upland or acala, I use a takli, which is a lousy drop spindle, but a great supported spindle.
Spinning wheels are general-purpose machines. Spindles are more specialized hand tools, and spindlers will have their favorites just as chefs have favorite knives. As spinners we need to understand the possibilities and limitations of our tools’ abilities. However, an adventurous spinner will push those same tools to their limits, making them do things other spinners would never imagine.
You’ve begun spinning for your project, finally. Now it’s bedtime on Sunday night, and you won’t have a chance to sit down and spin again until Wednesday. How do you make sure you start spinning the same grist next time? A sample helps. Find a sheet of paper and tape a sample to it, or tie a longer sample to your spinning wheel somewhere. You can fondle it before you sit down next to refresh your fingers’ memory of the way the ‘proper’ yarn feels. It may take you a minute or two to get back into the groove of spinning it, but that’s OK. After you feel you’ve ‘found your niche’ again, stop the wheel (or spindle), unwind a bit, and see how it compares with your sample. If it’s pretty close, just leave it. If it’s way off, pull it back off, break it loose, and toss it away (or save it for something else). Then attach your fiber again and start spinning what you wanted. It’s only a bit of fiber, and you’ve got plenty.
Finish all yarn before you start knitting with it. I don’t make many flat statements, so please listen! I know you don’t like waiting for the skeins to dry – I don’t either. But I’ve had the requisite number of disasters to make me fully cognizant of the potential for a repeat catastrophe if I don’t take the time to complete this step. I’m always reminded of a weaving maxim – it isn’t finished until it’s wet-finished. Washing yarn allows for more than cleaning. It allows twist to settle and yarn to bloom, and makes knitting or weaving more pleasant. It allows you to discover in advance that your dyes are running, and do something about it before you put them next to a contrasting border or stripe. It fills the room with the lovely smell of clean wet wool. And it gives you time to make your final design decisions, dig out the proper knitting needles or reed, and look at your notes or pattern one more time.
Conventional wisdom says to spin and finish all of the yarn for a project before you begin knitting. There are indeed spinners who do exactly that. There are far more who can’t wait to get into the knitting part of the project, and who spin only when they need more knitting yarn. Either way will work, as long as you keep careful notes about how you finished your yarn and samples of each step of the process. This should prevent you from starting a center-out round shawl with lace-weight 2-ply that finishes off with a DK-weight knitted border.
Any spinner who has learned how to make fairly even singles can then go on to spin any yarn he/she likes. It’s simply a matter of being willing to play until you find the best way for you to get what you want. There are no short-cuts to the learning curve. Spinners aren’t usually those in search of instant gratification – we enjoy the process, whether it’s the process of creating yarn or the process of creating unique, one-of-a-kind items. That isn’t to say spinners aren’t frequently perfectionists – many of us wear that label along with its sibling, obsessive-compulsive syndrome. In some cases that longing to control all the variables is part of what started us spinning! But many of us who wear those labels have also learned the knack of ‘exempting’ part of our spinning time from our obsessive behavior. I decided long ago that spinning time was play time. And play time is ‘time out’ from trying to be perfect – otherwise it isn’t play! Surprisingly (or perhaps not), I’ve become easier to live with since I remembered how to play. I’ve also become a much better spinner, a more adventurous weaver, and a more adventurous knitter!