Getting set

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Some thoughts on spinning, from a, largely, self-taught spinner, with a fiendish tendency to read up on things.

Spinning is easier than you think, though watching a practiced spinner can make it seem one will never manage to any level of real skill. In the past three years I’ve been wheel spinning I’ve learned a lot, and I still have the sense I am a sorry excuse for a “good spinner”, despite people buying my yarns, asking me for advice, and generally making it fairly plain I don’t suck.

Apart from the problems indirectly related to spindle and bobbin (how to pay for all the pretty fiber, and were to stash it once it’s bought) the answer to almost all the rest is a combination of practice, and more practice. The worst thing you will do is make some ugly yarn. Don’t worry about it, because there are people who like the yarn you hate. I still have the first skein I did on my wheel, such a mix of slubby, inconsistent twist as one migt ever see. BUT… I can go to any Stitch and Bitch and see people working with yarn just like it. I can open spinning magazines to find articles on how to make it, and letters bemoaning how hard people find it to make.  The worst thing to happen is you waste some fiber.

Like Scotch whisky, where it’s said the first one you try will set your preference for peat and smoke, so too the first yarns you train yourself to make. If you work on getting fine yarns, you will then find all your yarns want to end up fine. If you teach yourself longdraw… then you will revert it in moments of absent-mindedness.

All the nomenclature, Z/S lay, TPI, WPI, Grist, YPP, singles, plie, cables, worsted, woolen, carding, combing, batts, rolags, punis, flicked, sliver, greasy, VM, neps, noils,  staple, ratio, inching, drafting, twist zone, TPM, whorl, direct drive, double drive, bobbin-led, flyer-led, scotch tension (not a bad thing, though a bit of Scotch can relieve a spinner’s tension), irish tension, lazy kate, niddy-noddy, front maiden, back maiden, mother-of-all, cards, combs, blending board… is both useful, immaterial and stuff you will soak up as you need it.

Sadly, there is no good way to know what it is you will do wrong when you start. In the first place, what you want to spin now, is not going to be what you want to spin always, and the main purpose of your spinning may change drastically (the knitter may discover weaving, or even crochet, all of which want differently spun yarns to be at their best).  On the flip side, the differences are of degree, not kind.  So spin for what you want to do know, while playing with yarns you don’t have a real need for.

In the first place, different kinds of spinning are good for making your “home style” better, because they make you a more intentional spinner. Having done a skein up in long-draw (esp. at the outset, when you don’t yet have strong habits) will make it easier to sit down to the wheel when someone wants a lot of Lopi turned into medium weight woolen 3-ply for a Fair Isle sweater.

In the second, it will make it easier to find the default spinning you enjoy most, so you can sit down to the wheel as relaxation, not just “work”.

I do commend reading. Alden Amos has an excellent, encyclopedic work on spinning*. More detail than you need, even if what you need is to set up a factory to make yarn. And most of it in very approachable language, with interpolations of an expert; who has opinions.

The two main categories of spinning, for the home-spinner, are knitting/crochet, and weaving.  The former is what most people want yarn for. If you plan to sell yarn, those are the styles to aim for. That said, there are some important subtleties to make the best yarn you can make for the end user.

Lay is the difference. When you knit, or crochet, you are making a twist in the yarn. Depending on how the yarn was made, you will either be adding, or removing twist. The desire is, generally, to add twist (so the stitches lock up more solidly).

For right-handed crochet, or European Style knitting, the lay should be Z/S. For left handed crochet, or American Style Knitting, the better lay is S/Z. If the yarn is being made by a clockwise spinning action (be it spindle, or wheel, or twisting it up on your thigh, or…) the lay is Z. If widdershins, then the lay is S. It will take awhile for that to become plain, but it will.

Weaving doesn’t care, in the same ways, about lay; though how your yarns are laid will affect how the warp and weft interact; which isn’t something we need to worry about now. The big difference if you are spinning for the loom is you need to learn to spin “harder” yarns.

Which brings us to the big divide… Woolen vs. Worsted (to those knitters/hookers in the audience, for a spinner worsted is a way of making yarn, not a diameter). This is where we start leaving objective fact, and entering the world of subjectivity, into realms where the divides of opinion border on religious.

At root the difference is simple. Woolen spinning is more chaotic than worsted. It has less air, and is less compacted. For woolen spinning carded wool is spun from a twisted bunch of fiber. For worsted spinning combed fiber is spun from a non-twisted bunch of fiber. . After this divide, all bets are (sort of) off.

If you ask me, neither style is “better” to start; again what you expect to be spinning most, is the way to go.  That said, I sort of wish I’d started spinning woolen, instead of the mostly worsted style I did.  Not so much because it’s easier, but because I find myself having troubles moving to the more ‘relaxed’ aspects of woolen spinning.

So, the next post will be on how to start spinning; in general, with some thoughts on how woolen is harder to spin, given the state of prepared fiber in the commercial market.



*The Big Book of Handspinning: It’s an idiosyncratic look at spinning, both a purely technical treatise, and a ton of editorial comment on how/why he thinks things ought to be. I enjoy his method, at the same time there are some places we diverge greatly, e.g. he thinks double-treadle wheels are terrible, and useless both a waste of money, and bad for spinners.

I Don’t.

That said, it’s a great book worth the ~$40US it costs. It’s, pretty much, everything one needs to know about fiber, from collecting it, to getting rid of it. It’s well written, quirky and gave me huge swathes of confidence, of the “I can DO this.”

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