So you’ve got a wheel, it’s set up, you have a comfy chair, some pleasant background and a beverage.
Hold off for a bit. The background and the beverage are still useful, but I think you might want to wait a bit to spin; because your fiber isn’t ready. That’s because I’m going to recommend you start by spinning woolen. I recommend this not because it’s “easier”, but because if you don’t start with it it’s harder to do later, and spinning woolen has some odd little traps, of which the one which gave me the most grief was this…
To back up a bit (forgive me if you know this already, but it helps me to get down to the nuts and bolts), spinning is the act of locking several fibers to each other by means of torsion. It requires, at minimum three fibers¹; for practical reasons we tend to use a lot more.
Woolen does it by having roughly ordered fiber, into which the twist is allowed to run. By pulling against the twist the bundle is attenuated and become a well-ordered thing. It’s simple (not to be confused with easy). It requires more faith in yourself, and trust in the twist, because all of the magic is happening pretty much outside your hands.
This is where it gets subtle. Most commercially prepared fibers are “top”, i.e. they have been prepped for worsted spinning, which does away with all the chaotic elements which make woolen spinning easier. I remember when I first tried long-draw. I’d been watching videos, and seen people doing it at demos. It’s what people usually think of when they think of someone at a spinning wheel. The treadles get going, the spinner has a clump of wool and then reaches backwards, and in the space between hand and wheel –YARN– just appears, to disappear through the orifice and onto the bobbin until more is made by the simple act of reaching back.
I couldn’t do it. Not I made crap yarn, no. I Couldn’t Do It At All. I’d put the wheel in motion, get some twist into my hand, reach back and Poof! the yarn had run out of my hand and was wrapped around the bobbin; completely disconnected from the hank of fiber I was holding. To say it was frustrating would be an understatement. So I did what I do, and went hit the books some more. Best guess seemed to be not my technique, per se, but my wool.
It was a smooth fiber (I don’t know what, I got 1 lb when I bought the wheel, creamy white; probably Blue-Faced Leicester, but I’m not sure) and wasn’t grabbing itself enough to overcome the takeup on the wheel.² and so the yarn wasn’t getting made.
So I dialed back the tension. Nope. Still losing the yarn about every third draw, and never did it feel secure in my hand. If I had enough takeup to move the yarn at all, it left my hand. Back to the books again, because I thought I remembered something about making yarn differently tractable. There it was… I should try boiling it.³ So, with some trepidation (see footnote, and remember I’d not done this before), I got a pot going, dipped a foot or so of roving in and POOF, it got bigger in the water. I took it out, and when it was dry, went back to the wheel.
I wasn’t good at it, but I could make yarn via long-draw. Which is the long way to say “you might want to boil your fiber before you try to spin woolen, esp. the at the beginning”.
¹the finest of Shetland laces, the famous “Ring Shawl” Lace is made, in theory, by plying three singles; ea. of three fibers, to make a 3-ply which is 9 fibers in diameter. In practice the good spinners average about 12 fibers. But they have a lot of practice, and carefully selected fiber. As usual, I digress
² takeup, and other aspects of the wheel are an entire arcana to themselves. The only thing I can really say about takeup is “less is more”, it changes as the bobbin fills, and you need to have enough to get the yarn onto the bobbin. After that, it’s sort of like pornography, you know it when you see it. Mostly you want to keep it at, “just just enough”, but what defines just enough is the interaction of ratio, fiber, treadle speed, fineness of yarn being made, diameter of bobbin, amount of yarn on the bobbin, etc.
So don’t worry about it, just make sure you have enough to get the yarn onto the bobbin. Balancing all the rest will come with time/practice.
³ Which probably means someone is going, “Hot water makes wool felt”. It ain’t so. Agitation makes it felt. Water speeds that up, and hot water speeds it up more, but it’s not the heat, it’s the motion.