Much has been written about spinning. It's an old craft that has come back into popularity in certain circles and it's been analyzed and picked apart by modern fiber artists until it seems somewhat mysterious and spiritual. Writers have expounded on the meditative qualities of spinning, the reflective attributes and the relaxing nature of the process. Others have turned out formulas for measuring twist, wraps per inch, grist and the like, making it a mathematical procedure and encouraging the spinner to measure their work at regular intervals to insure consistency. Still others have turned out entire books on the history, care and feeding of a spinning wheel and how to improve on the latest method of twisting hair into string.
But the fact remains that spinning, in all of its forms, is simply twisting fibers into string, a few strands at a time. Whether the work is done in a commercial mill on an enormous automated spinner, whether it's done on an electric or treadled spinning wheel in the home,
whether it's done on a hand spindle like the Indians and the Peruvians,
or whether it's done on something as simple as a whisk from the kitchen drawer (it's a little weird, but it can be done)
or a forked stick from the back yard, spinning is the craft of twist.
Managing the amount of fiber that's being twisted and the amount of twist being applied are the two things that occupy a spinner's mind and hands. More fiber being twisted at one time equals a thicker yarn and less equals a finer yarn. Simple. More twist applied equals a firmer and sturdier yarn and less equals a softer and more fragile yarn. Again, simple.
So what's the big deal? For spinners like me who rely on their sense of touch more than objective measurement, it isn't a big deal. For those who need absolute assurance of a consistent product, it can be quite involved and time consuming. I'll touch on the measuring when appropriate, but since it gives me a headache to think about it too much, it will be just a slight touch. Just like anything else, spinning can be analyzed and worked over to the point that it absolutely saps all the fun out of it and I surely don't want to do anything that isn't fun or interesting. Well, duh...
These are my favorite hand spindles.
I used them frequently in the past because my boys played a lot of baseball when they were younger and I could take one along with me. Baseball is the most boring game ever invented and my hand spindle kept my mind occupied during the three hour games and torturous weekend tournaments. The spindle is made of the top or bottom whorl and the shaft running through the center with a hook on the top to catch the yarn and keep it from flying off, and to keep the spindle from rolling under the bed. It is turned by hand and as it turns it twists the yarn. The spinner lets out more and more fiber to be twisted as the spindle turns and the spindle hangs by the spun yarn.
Eventually, the freshly spun yarn reaches the ground and the spinner has to stop and wind it around the shaft. The twisted yarn is stored on the shaft as the spinning progresses. I like to give my spindle an almighty spin by running the shaft up my leg like a top. It spins longer that way and I don't have to stop to keep turning it as I spin.
Going back to baseball, my spindle and I would stand on the top row of bleachers, looking very interested in seeing the entire baseball field. In reality, I was using the distance from the top of the bleachers to the ground to spin yards and yards of yarn without having to stop and wind on as often. I looked like the attentive and dedicated baseball mom, but I was just being an opportunist. Baseball is a lot like a TV soap opera--you can stop paying attention for hours and hours and then come back to it and pretty much pick up right where you left off without missing a beat. But I digress...
This is my spinning wheel.
If you turn a hand spindle on its side and think of it as the wheel, you can see how it translates to an actual spinning wheel.
The treadles at the bottom are operated by the feet in order to turn the wheel, which turns the bobbin, which spins the fibers.
OK with that? I think that's probably enough detail--the only thing more boring than technical descriptions about a low tech machine is actually...well...baseball. Some wheels have a smoother or faster action than others but each one, regardless of brand or type will be as individual as the spinner. It just takes some practice and time to get used to the way the wheel feels when it's working.
Managing the amount of fibers that are spun at any one time starts with what's called drafting. This is simply pulling and thinning the prepared fibers apart lengthwise without breaking the continuous stream.
The roving in this picture started out as two rovings the same length, but the one on the bottom has been drafted and is ready to spin. It's at least 5 times its original length but hasn't been broken.
I prefer to predraft my fibers because it makes the spinning go faster and it exposes any imperfections (bumps, knots, bits of hay, and yes, sometimes poop...) in the processed roving--and there are always imperfections, regardless of how meticulously prepared.
Fiber has a tendency to want to stick to itself and other fibers--lint out of the clothes dryer, dog hair on the furniture--so we make good use of that tendency. The spinner attaches the drafted fiber to the leader string on the bobbin by just laying it up against it the leader and starting to twist. The fibers will stick to the leader, the leader will twist the fibers into itself, and you're off and running. The wheel, via a brake band, will apply some tension to the string and provide "take up" which will cause the yarn to wind itself around the bobbin. All the spinner has to do is slightly ease up on the counter tension and "push" the yarn towards the bobbin rather than pulling against the tension.
The movements for spinning are draft, slide back, hold, wind on. During the draft, it's important that there be no twist between the hands, which is called the drafting zone. Twist makes the loose fibers stable and you don't want them to be stable until you decide how thick you want the yarn to be. Once the twist enters the fibers, it will be nigh unto impossible to draft it any thinner, so keep the twist in front of the leading hand by pinching off the yarn and control the predrafted fiber supply loosely in the back hand. Fingers of the front hand pinching off the twist with the same pressure as pulling a sewing needle through fabric, back hand controlling the fiber loosely and gently like holding a baby bird in the whole hand, keeping it still without crushing it.
The slide is when you slide both hands back, while still holding the yarn with the leading hand and drafting with the following hand, to allow more fibers to be drafted and spun, thus working your way through the river of fiber you're spinning. This is done repeatedly until the proper amount of twist has been added and the twisted yarn is long enough to wind on.
The hold is allowing the wheel to add twist. The longer the hold, the tighter the twist, so this is where a good eye or keen sense of touch comes in handy. This is also where some spinners will actually measure the angle of twist to make sure it's consistent. (Egads, here comes my headache...) Overtwist is when the yarn is so twisted that it starts to double back on itself in ugly bumps. It happens to everyone and the way to fix it is to slide back and let the twist follow into newly drafted fiber. The twist will follow your fingers and when the overtwist is smoothed out, wind on. (We'll get to that.) I saw a brightly colored novelty yarn in a store one time that was nothing but overtwist and bumps. It was selling for a ridiculous price and I was empowered and encouraged to keep spinning!
Slightly release the counter tension on the yarn and move your hands towards the bobbin to allow the winding on. You don't have to do anything else in this step because the wheel does it for you.
Slide back and begin drafting again. It's best to work at least 2 feet from the wheel, rather than feeding on 2-3 inches at a time. The back and shoulders pay the price and the craft seems less attractive when hunched over the wheel, suffering over each and every inch that passes through your hands.
During all of this, the feet are treadling continuously and relentlessly, maintaining a constant speed and always in the same direction. Developing a rhythm helps move the work along and makes it less stressful. My first attempts at spinning were teeth grinding bouts of frustration,
but the rhythm came with practice and experience and the frustration flew away. Once you don't have to concentrate on your feet, your hands learn a lot faster and your whole body relaxes.
OK, that's really about it. It sounds complicated, but describing movements that become quite natural in a short amount of time always sounds more complicated than it is. So, spin up a couple of bobbins of yarn, both spun in the same direction. Don't worry about lumps, bumps, thin spots, knots, overtwist, or anything else. (Except, perhaps any poop--you must pick that out, really. It will be dry.) Just spin it up. If you have enough bobbins to spin more, spin that up too, until you're sick and tired of it or until you run out of fiber. Chances are good that the character of the yarn has gotten smoother, thinner and more consistent. Chances are good that you're looking for another batch of fiber to spin. Chances are good that you've started collecting the cotton out of aspirin bottles to spin. Chances are good that you've started wondering if you could learn to knit, weave, do macrame, or make rope (depending on what your yarn looks like).
But wait--it's not quite over. We still need to ply in order to balance the yarn and to use it without it twisting back on itself. There are many ways to make and use single ply yarns, but first yarns are usually plied.
To make a simple 2-ply yarn, get two plastic buckets and put one full bobbin in each, one on either side of your chair. Pull the singles yarn from each bobbin and attach the two strands together onto an empty bobbin on the spinning wheel. Treadle in the opposite direction as the strands were originally spun and the let the two strands twist around each other.
Slide back, pull more singles, feed on. Watch the plying twist and try to keep it even and consistent. Experiment with how much twist to put into the ply. Count the number of treadles, or measure the angle of twist if you must (remember geometry 101?). Use up all of the yarn on the two bobbins and keep on plying until it's all gone. If you want to measure the thickness of your yarn, take a ruler and begin wrapping the yarn around and around the ruler. Push it tightly together and measure how many wraps go around one inch. This is called wraps per inch, wpi, and as technical as I ever get on purpose. It's a measurement that will allow you to compare one yarn with another in terms of thickness and will allow you to mark your progress and preferences as you go along.
Skein it up by wrapping it around two chairs or use another ingenious device to help you do that. Done! There are infinite ways to tweak, add, adjust, change, or personalize the process, but that's it in a nutshell. I made a lead rope out of my first yarn because it was a ghastly shade of yellow, ungodly coarse wool from market sheep, the singles were thicker than my index finger and horribly uneven. It's a great rope and I'm still very proud and still think I'm quite smart for all that. It's nearly 8 years old and I think it's currently holding a gate shut, but there you have it...all yarn has a use!
These are some samples of handspun yarn.