I’ve been terrible at updating this blog lately, I know! I’m stressed with my thesis, due in about a month, and the truth is… I have such fun writing here that when I start it’s hard to stop and get back to the work I should be doing.
However, I have been fairly active on Ravelry, particularly in the spinning groups (because if it’s not one distraction, it’s another). I thought that since I was writing posts on Ravelry, some of which go into more detail than probably anyone there would ever want to hear from me! I might as well share them here as well. Today it’s a post I made recently in response to someone looking for tips on learning to spin on a drop spindle.
Of course I personally learnt to spin on supported spindles, but the more time I spend spinning on suspended spindles, the more I see that they’re really a great option for starting off. And now that I’ve had experience spinning suspended, as well as helping people learn, and collating information in my own research, I thought that I should write down some of what I’ve learnt.
Here it is, my rambling thoughts of what people learning to spin with a drop spindle might want to know. (This has been somewhat edited and much elaborated upon compared to what I wrote on Ravelry. I’ve also added subheadings to make everything clearer.)
Starting out with a drop spindle
To be absolutely clear, I’ve only been spinning for a year or so, and I started out using supported spindles (as oppose to suspended or ‘drop’ spindles). I think I’m going fairly well with my spinning, including spinning on drop spindles, though it’s hard to tell without a local spinning community as references. I spin a lot, several hours of every day (at least), I spin as I walk, and talk, on the bus, at work, in bed, really there aren’t many time or places I wont spin. And I’ve done a lot of work researching spinning, looking at what people far more experienced and knowledgeable than myself have to say.
But I’m not an expert, this is information that worked well for me, when I was learning to spin, and that I’ve collated from many different sources. Please don’t just take my word for it! Think for yourself, find what works for you. And turn to better resources then I could ever be :) A good start is Abby Franquemont, she’s my favourite source of information when it comes to spinning on a drop spindle. She has lots of youtube videos, including an ‘Introduction to Drop Spinning’. She also has a book, ‘Respect the Spindle’, which can be downloaded on Amazon. And video by the same name, which can be downloaded from Interweave. If you’re willing to invest a bit, Respect the Spindle is a great way to start, and the video is the best ‘how to’ for beginners that I’ve seen.
Also, this is something of an exercise in creating a written account of all the things that I think could help someone learning to spin on a drop spindle. I hope that the written from lends this to being a resources which can be easy to consult with any issues you might have (please let me know if there’s anything I haven’t covered, if I don’t know how to help, I’ll research it and get back to you). The trust is, much of this information could be better convoyed in pictures and videos (which is something I plan on getting to at a later point). If you’re unsure of something, google it, look at other blogs, videos on youtube, Ravelry groups, and of course the wonderful books and videos available from expert spinners like Abby.
When spinning on a drop spindle you normally use your dominant hand to spin the spindle and your non-dominant hand to hold the fibre. Your dominant hand does double duty, helping to draft (below) once the spindle has been set in motion. However, there are no hard and fast rules, if this arrangement isn’t working for you, feel free to swap hands and see how you go.
The same goes for the direction you spin the spindle in. By convention yarn is spun counter-clockwise and plied clockwise, and this seems to work best for most right-handed people. I’m left-handed, and I spin in the opposite direction. Do whatever works for you. But it is important to note the direction you’re spinning in, because if you accidentally reverse it, you’ll be unspinning your yarn! (Oh, also, make sure that you wind-on in the same direction as you’re spinning!)
Try spinning for maybe 15 minutes or half an hour a day. Don’t push it, if you find yourself getting frustrated, walk away and come back later. The thing about spinning is that you can do all the research and learn the ‘right way’ to do everything, but in the end it’s muscle memory more than anything. It’s your hands that need to do the learning. Eventually it will click, and maybe you will find something that works for you which isn’t what you expected.
And don’t worry about how your early yarns look! Making lumpy bumpy yarn is part of the learning process, to be embraced :) (If you’re feeling down about it, just search for ‘Art yarns’ on Etsy. Once you’ve moved past the lumpy bumpy stage, you’ll have to actively work at it if you want to spin like that again.)
Choosing a spindle
When it comes to choosing a spindle to learn on, the truth is… there are heaps of options out there, and very few that wouldn’t do the job just fine. There’s no single ‘prefect’ spindle, for anything, including learning. A spindle is an incredible tool, and an incredibly simple tool, you, the spinner, is a much larger part of the equation.
Weight is the one thing that I think is really important in a beginners spindle. A spindle that is too heavy can put strain on your wrist and arm, particularly when you’re not use to the movements involved, and make the learning experience unpleasant. While a spindle that is too light can be hard for a beginner to control, it will start spinning backwards relatively quickly, and may not have the momentum needed to introduce twist to the kind of bulky yarn beginners often make. (Plus if you’re only getting one spindle (you say that now :) ) and want to use it to ply your yarn as well, a larger spindle will give you more options.)
In terms of the other features of a spindle, there’s heaps of options, but none that will have a huge impact when you’re starting out. The two major categories of drop spindles are top-whorl and bottom-whorl, the difference there is fairly self-explanatory (rarer are mid-whorl spindles). There’s also how the yarn is secured, hooks are normal for top-whorls, and sometimes seen on bottom-whorls, but with other bottom-whorls you’ll need to learn a half-hitch (not an issue, just something to be aware of). And beyond this, how well the spindle is balanced, the shape of the whorl, how the weight is distributed in the whorl, the thickness, shape and length of the shaft, etc, etc. I could go into detail about how each of these factors impact the spin (I’ll save it for another post), but the overall behaviour of a given spindle is determined by the interaction of them all, and none of this will impact your ability to learn on that spindle.
My basic advice for choosing a spindle is to go for a ‘medium-weight’ to start with, around 25 to 50 g (1 to 2 oz). There is a tendency for much heavier spindles (‘boat anchors’) to be marketed to beginners, but I would avoid these for now. A well-balanced spindle will always be nice (though by no means necessary, as quickly becomes apparent when looking at historic spindles, or those still used by many people from communities with continuous spinning traditions), but this is where modern spindle-makers excel, so it shouldn’t be an issue. Pick a spindle that appeals to you, something you can see yourself enjoying working with, that you’ll want to come back to when the learning process gets frustrating.
Choosing your fibre
Make sure you have good quality fibre (don’t save the good stuff for later, the sheep will always be growing more wool). Wool is a good starting point, nowadays it’s the fibre that is handspun most often, so resources for beginners will be aimed at spinning wool, and a lot of modern spindles and spinning techniques have been developed with wool in mind. Personally I like Merino as a beginner wool, though I’m sure that this is partly because it’s what is readily available in Australia. It’s normal for the fibre that spun most often in a region to be that which is suggested for beginners. I have heard a lot of people recommend BFL for beginners, or other generally ‘medium’ wools (note that Merino would be considered a fine wool).
There are lots of options in terms of how fibres can be prepared for spinning, most of these fit into two broad categories: combed (top), where all the fibres are arranged parallel and shorter fibres have been removed, and carded (roving or batts), where the fibres are more randomly arranged and shorter fibres are included. I don’t have a personal preference as to which would be better for beginners, and opinions seem to differ. It seems like some people will find one prep easier when they’re learning, and others will prefer another. Try a few if you can, if not then there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to learn with what you have. (Note that the braids of wool you often see, which dyers tend to hand paint, are normally commercially combed tops, though they’ll often be mislabelled as roving.)
People will often say that undyed fibres should be used for learning. This is because dyeing carries with it a risk of causing felting, which is very bad for spinning! The dyeing process also jumbles up the fibres in combed top a little, making it behave a bit more like roving, but that could make the fibre easier to work with for you, again, everyone is different.
In my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with starting with dyed fibres. I love working with colour, and if you think that colour will make learning to spin more enjoyable for you, then that’s a good enough reason for me! Just make sure that you’re getting your fibre from a reliable dyer, because you don’t want to be trying to learn to spin with fibres that have been felted during dyeing (and as a beginner you might not be able to identify when this is the problem). Even the best dyer will have fibre felt occasionally, but they’ll know to check, and wont be selling that fibre.
A leader is a length of premade yarn which you attached to the spindle and then connected to your fibre. You can spin without a leader (or spin one as you go, depending on how you look at it), either using a hook to ‘hook’ the fibre and spin a length long enough to attach to the shaft, or spinning a length between your hands before attaching it to the shaft. (Spinning with just our hands is perfectly feasible, it’s just a matter of pull and twist. We only run into trouble is when we run out of space between our hands… how to store this yarn under tension, while still allowing us to keep twisting the new yarn being formed? And thus the spindle was created, many thousands of years ago). When you’re starting out, a premade leader is a good idea.
To make your leader, take some of commercial yarn, maybe the length of your arm, double it over, and tie a knot in the end so that you have a loop. Secure the leader to the shaft of the spindle with a larks head knot (wrap one end of leader around the spindle and pull the other end through the first). If you’re using a top-whorl spindle, bring the leader up over the whorl and through the hook. If you’re using a bottom-whorl spindle, wrap the leader up the shaft and through the hook it it has one, otherwise secure it with a half-hitch (loop the yarn back on itself, twisting it so that the end leaving the spindle sits under the end attached to the spindle, then slip this loop over the shaft of the spindle. The loop is held in place because the yarn attached to the spindle has trapped the yarn leaving the spindle, but it can be quickly undone by simply sliding it off the shaft). You want to have at least a hands length of leader left at the top of the spindle, so the precise length of the leader will depend on the spindle you’re using.
Now you can take your fibre supply and connect it to the leader by pulling a small section away and inserting it into the loop, then doubling it back on itself. This is like your first little piece of drafted fibre, and it will stay secured to the leader as you spin the doubled over section together.
Spinning the spindle
I most often set my drop spindles in motion with a finger-flick. To do this I hold the shaft against my index finger with my thumb, then use my thumb to roll it up to the tip of my index finger, while curing my index finger backwards. This way the spindle rolls off my index finger and ‘drops’ spinning in the air (when I want to spin my spindle in the opposite direction, for example to ply (below), I roll it down my index finger instead). Sometimes I’ll use my middle finger as well… but in all honestly I can’t really say what you should do precisely, it’s the kind of thing that will come down to what works for you, not dissimilar to clicking your fingers.
There are other ways of setting the spindle in motion. Most common is rolling the shaft down your thigh, a technique normally associated with top-whorl spindles. Though when stating out a thigh-roll is liable to result in more twist than is helpful! (It’s not a technique that I use often myself.) On Abby Franquemont’s ‘Respect the Spindle’, she showed a really interesting way of spinning a bottom-whorl spindle, by rolling it between her hands. I haven’t given it a try yet, but I shall! Though I’ve only seen this technique used for plying, and I’d imagine that this could pose the same issue for beginners as a thigh-roll.
When you’re starting out, there is nothing wrong with twisting the spindle in your hand, not letting it drop at all. Yes, twist will accumulate slower (though you’d be surprised at how efficient this technique can be), but speed shouldn’t be a concern when you’re learning. Hand-twisting can be a great way of getting a feel for how the twist enters the fibre. Even after you’ve got the hang of other techniques, hand-twisting can be a good way of fine-tuning the amount of twist available.
Park and draft
Park and draft is the technique that I (and many others) suggest beginners start out using. Here you spin the spindle to accumulate twist in your leader, while pinching the top of the leader (where the doubled over fibre is connected) to stop the twist getting into the fibre supply. You could twist the spindle in your hand at first, before moving onto flicking the spindle (above). Keep an eye on the spinning spindle and observe when it starts to slow down, after which it will start to spin in the other direction (back-spinning). You want to stop the spindle before this happens, you could flick it again if you want more twist, though at this point there may be too much twist in the leader pushing back against the spindle, so you might have to spin the spindle it in hand, or move to the ‘park’ stage.
To ‘park’ the spindle, I like to put it between my knees, under the arm is another option. This will stop is moving while while you ‘draft’. Draft the fibre out using both hands, making sure to keep twist out of the fibre supply (see ‘Short forward draft’ below). The twist that you accumulated in the leader will move into the fibre as you draft, turing it into yarn! You just need to decide when you’ve drafted enough fibre to redistribute that twist nicely (see ‘How much twist?’ below). If you feel like you’ve drafted too far and want more twist in your yarn, you can pick up the spindle and twist it in your hand until you have enough twist. Once you’ve made a length of yarn, wind it onto the spindle, leaving a hands length or so which you charge with twist again, so continuing the process.
Park and draft allows you to separate twisting the spindle from drafting, making it a wonderful way to learn. Of course, it’s much easier to see how it’s done on a video, hence my suggestions of Abby Franquemont’s videos, particularly Respect the Spindle.
When I’ve experimented with park and draft, I’ve found that it helps to wrap the yarn around the hook once or twice, rather than just going through it. All of the twist stored in the yarn makes it more likely to ‘jump’ out of a hook, as does the fact that the spindle isn’t suspended from the yarn when it’s ‘parked’. You might also find that wrapping the hook is helpful as you move to other spinning techniques.
People will often worry about when they should move away from park and draft, or fear getting ‘stuck’ with this technique if they don’t force themselves past it. Don’t. The skills you build up with park and draft will transfer seamlessly to drafting while the spindle is in motion. Most people find that they move away from park and draft naturally, one day they may notice that they stopped parking the spindle without even realising that they were doing it. If you think you’re ready to spin without parking the spindle, give it a go, if you find that you’re not, that’s just fine. The longer you work on park and draft, the closer you will be to moving beyond it. (And there is nothing wrong with experienced spinners coming back to park and draft either! Sometimes it’s just the best way to spin a certain fibre or use a certain technique.)
Short forward draft
The short forward draft is, in my opinion, the best drafting style to use when you’re starting out, particularly with park and draft. This is because it allows you to overcome one of the major problems that beginners tend to have with drafting- twist in the fibre supply (twist is what binds fibers together, if the fibre supply is too twisted, fibres wont draft out from it). In the short forward draft you pinch fibre from the fibre supply with your forward hand (the one you use to spin the spindle), draft a section out, then slide your pinched fingers back up to the fibre supply. In this way you let the twist that is below your fingers reach the drafted fibre, but not the fibre supply. (Short forward draft is often called ‘inch-worming’, for reasons that become apparent as you make the small back and forth movements required.)
Twist in the fibre supply is more of a risk when we’re spinning using park and draft (above). Twist will always go the point of least resistance first, which in spinning is the thinest section of fibre. As we draft, we pull out a thin section of fibre which the twist will enter. The fibre supply, being much much thicker, isn’t as likely to become twisted. However, when we’re using part and draft, we accumulate a lot of twist in the leader before we start to draft, and this may well be enough twist to enter the fibre supply. Which is why ashort forward draft is the ideal companion (in my opinion) for park and draft.
Untwisting the fibre supply
If you do get twist into the fibre supply, disconnect the yarn and let the fibre supply untwist, it’s that easy. (If you’re using a short segment of fibre, you could let it untwist to the other direction, while keeping the yarn connected.)
If you’re having trouble getting the fibre to draft, and you know that the problem isn’t twist, check that your hands aren’t too close together. If your hands are closer than the stable length (the length of the individual fibres), you’ll be trying to pull out fibres with one hand while holding onto them with the other. You can pull out a few individual fibers to get an idea of the staple length. Having your hands twist the distance of the staple length is a good rule of thumb, and if in doubt, just try moving your hands further apart to see if that makes drafting easier.
Also try to avoid holding your fibre with a death grip! I don’t always worry myself about the staple length and the distance between my hands, because I’m holding the fibre lightly enough that it can slip out of my hand. But when you’re starting out this can be very difficult, so adjusting the distance between your hands is generally a good way to start.
What about the fibre?
You’ve done all these things, and you’re having trouble drafting… you might find yourself worrying that the problem is the fibre preparation itself, perhaps that it’s poor quality or felted fibre which just wont draft. This is easy to test, just put the spindle away and see how you go pulling out bits of fibre lengthwise (i.e. in the same direction you’re trying to draft). If fibres pull out easily, then it’s a preparation that should be able to draft, it’s just a matter of getting the coordination down once the spindle is involved.
The potential dangers of predrafting
Try to avoid falling into the habit of ‘predrafting’ your fibre to the diameter of the yarn you want to spin, then only adding twist with the spindle, and not drafting at all during spinning… This is a trap! Sure, it lets people with relatively little experience make relatively even yarn. But the skills it requires don’t transfer well to true drafting (i.e. drafting as the twist is introduced). And this technique can be very difficult to move past, because doing so requires stepping ‘backwards’ and making yarn that looks ‘worse’ than what you were making before. Plus the yarn you make this way can only ever be relatively dense and thick, which will quickly become limiting. (Notice how I normally tell people not to take my word for things, and to consider other ways of achieving the same outcome… but not this time.)
Some people advocate ‘predrafting’ in the sense of slightly attenuating the fibre by pulling it apart a little lengthwise before you start spinning. This is suppose to help the fibres draft as you spin. I don’t personally do this (except in very specific circumstances for certain effects), and I when I’ve tried it, I haven’t found that it helps me draft. Instead I’ll try the steps I outlined above if I’m finding drafting difficult. And if I’m finding that the fibre prep is too bulky and I’m having trouble drafting evenly across it, I’ll split it into smaller sections (for example splitting combed top lengthways) rather than attenuating it.
Predrafting can be risky for beginners because it can be hard to tell when to stop, and what has been drafted can’t be undrafted. I feel like good fibre will draft without predrafting, if predrafting is the only way to make fibre useable, it’s not good fibre.
Learning to draft is part of learning to spin, in fact it’s easily the biggest part! It can be hard at first, but that doesn’t mean that you need to change something about the fibre or how you’re trying to spin, it probably just means that you need to keep practicing. Every minute you spend finding drafting difficult and a minute closer to the ‘click’, where it all falls into place. Don’t cheat yourself out of your click.
Other drafting styles
(Please do skip over these last two drafting sections if all you’re just looking for tips when starting out, because I’m going to start going into some of the drafts you can explore as you move away from park and draft /short forward draft.)
As you keep spinning you can start working with other drafting styles. When you start moving away from park and draft, you may find that it becomes difficult to slide your pinched fingers back to the fibre supply after drafting out, I definitely do. If I try to do a ‘true’ short forward draft with the spindle suspended, I find that the yarn wont slip between my fingers as I try to slide them backwards, and instead I just lift the spindle up a little! (If anyone has any idea how to overcome this, I’d love to hear it, I wonder if perhaps a heavier spindle would provide enough resistance that my pinched fingers, move rather than the yarn.)
The good thing is… this isn’t really a problem, because the style of short forward draft I prefer doesn’t involve sliding my fingers back to the fibre supply. In my short forward draft I still pinch the fibre in my forward hand, and draft it out. But then I release the fibre, so that the twist move straight up into the drafted section, as I’m moving my forward hand back to the fibre supply, ready to pinch and draft agin. The fibre supply doesn’t become twisted as long as I’m drafting fast enough that the amount of twist built-up in the yarn isn’t sufficient to enter the much thicker fibre supply.
The long draw is the other drafting style I use most often, I love this one. In the long draw, it’s the twist itself at the front of the fibre supply that I use to draft out the fibre. The twist is literally grabbing fibres from the fibre supply as it’s moved away from the spindle, so that they’re be pulled out and twisted into yarn. When I’m using this drafting style on a drop spindle I will keep my forward hand on one side of my body, while I pull the fibre supply across my body as the twist drafts out the fibre. My forward hand provides tension so that fibres can draft out (otherwise the suspended spindle would just move along with the fibre supply). There’s a certain way I ‘dance’ the fingers of my forward hand so that the twist being generated by the spindle can get past them and reach the fibre supply. The long draw is particularly suited to fine, short-stable fibres, because they need to be able to draft apart under just the twist, you don’t have your forward hand to pull them from the bundle.
Of course none of this is anything to worry about when starting out (so why did I write it? I suppose to give you an idea of where you’re heading, particularly as the short forward-draw can become tedious), as long as you’re spinning yarn, you’re going well :)
Way too much drafting detail, etc
When I’m drafting on a drop spindle, I like to have both of my hands held on a horizontal plan in front of me. Rather than having my forward hand held under my fibre hand. I find that this becomes a much more comfortable way to spin over time, because I’m not raising the shoulder of my fibre hand. This is easy with a long draw, where I support the yarn in my forward hand and pull the fibre across my body to draft.
With the short forward draft I keep my hands horizontal using a motion that is difficult explain, but bare with me… I move the pinched fingers (thumb and index finger) of my forward hand away from my body when I release the drafted fibre, so that the drafted fibre (quickly turning into yarn) move into the ring formed by my pinched fingers, coming to rest on the inside of thumb. This motion allows the yarn to roll down my thumb, ensuring that twist enters the drafted fibre. I also use the curled middle and ring (and sometimes little) fingers of my forward hand to cradle the yarn as I draft, which enables me to move my pinched fingers back to the fibre supply without dropping the yarn. Sometimes I’ll also flick these fingers out as I release the drafted fibre onto my thumb, if it seems like I’m not getting enough twist past them to the forming yarn. But I always make sure to curl these fingers back around the yarn so that it’s supported as I reposition my hand to draft new fibre.
In general I find that keeping my hands horizontal is much more comfortable, and lets me spin for longer. However, when spinning using park and draft, and a forward short draw, it becomes more difficult to achieve, and isn’t particularly practical. It’s not something I’d worry about first, particularly since you’re unlikely to spinning for long enough periods that hand position becomes a major issue. But if you do find that the shoulder of your fibre arm is feeling uncomfortable as you spin, try to consciously bring that shoulder down, so that it’s in a relaxed position, even if your arm is raised.
With a bottom whole spindle I’ll keep the yarn positioned on the inside of my thumb as I move my hand down to reflick spindle, and back up to start drafting again. While with a top whole spindle I’ll still ‘follow’ the yarn down to the spindle, but then I’ll release the yarn so that I can move my hand to the shaft which is below the whorl, and take my hand straight back up to the fibre. This technique helps to ensure that my forward hand is always the right position for whatever it needs to do next, and that the spindle isn’t swinging around, escaping my reach. (The spindle might be ‘dropped’, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have control over it.)
Please note that the nuances of drafting will differ from person to person, these are the techniques that work for me, in the context of the potential problems that they help me overcome. This isn’t something to worry about when you’re just starting out, but rather ways of overcoming issues that might come up as you move away from park and draft.
Pretty pretty butterfly (winding-on)
An important aspect of spinning is keeping control of the yarn you’re making. Tension is your friend. Tangles aren’t fun, and the yarn we spin, full of extra twist before it’s plied (see ‘How much twist?’ and ‘Plying’ below) can be particularly badly behaved given half a chance. This is why we use special techniques to keep the length of yarn we just spun under tension while we wind it onto the spindle. Techniques that become very important as you move past park and draft (above) and the spindle starts dropping out of your reach due to the length of the yarn you’re spinning.
When I need to wind-on, I like to start by making a butterfly, this is also called ‘walking the yarn’ up your hand. I try to start creating the butterfly before the spindle runs out of spin, so that it will be in my hand before it starts spinning backwards (and removing twist from the yarn). Using only the hand that holds my fibre, I loop the yarn around the back of my thumb from the inside of my hand to the outside, then I do the same on my little finger (other people use different figures). I continue this pattern, creating a figure-eight of yarn (a butterfly) between my fingers, until I can pick up the spindle with my forward hand, leaving a short length of yarn above the spindle. I use the free fingers of my fibre hand to unhook the yarn (or slip the half-hitch) from the spindle. Then I wind-on using my forward hand to twist the spindle, letting the yarn work its way back off my fingers.
Not only does the butterfly keep the yarn tensioned and under control while bring the spindle into reach, it also allows you better control over how the yarn winds-on. As you wind the yarn onto the spindle you build a ‘cop’. Building a neat, dense, well-balanced cop is an important skill to learn. It lets you fit more on the spindle, avoids loops of yarn spinning off and tangling up, and ensures that your spindle stays balanced as the cop grows (often cop will quickly outweigh the spindle, so as it grows, it can have a greater impact than anything else on balance). Butterflying the yarn means that you have more control over where the new yarn is being placed on the cop, as well as the tension that it’s under.
Some people find butterflying the yarn very difficult to get the hang of, if you’re struggling, make sure to consult some videos so that you can see it done in person. And if that doesn’t help, remember that the purpose of the technique is to keep the yarn under control, if you can achieve that another way, maybe wrapping the yarn around your hand, then use that for now. As your experience with spinning grows, so will your fibre handing skills, and chances are the butterfly will be easy when you come back to it. Don’t let not being able to do a certain technique stop you advancing in other ways. There are nearly always more than on way to achieve a given outcome, which is why it’s important to understand why you’re doing a thing, a oppose to simply what you’re suppose to do.
Don’t be afraid of making joins. Sometimes people will use really large segments of fibre because they don’t want to have to add on. But joining is easy, whereas trying to manage too much fibre can hold you back (so can not disconnecting the yarn to let twist out when the fibre supply has become twisted).
Fluffy loves to join to fluffy, so try to stop spinning before you get to the very end of the fibre (or pull the yarn off with some fluffy bits attached). Overlay the fluffies onto the new fibre, draft them out together, and keep spinning. It might be a bit tricky at first, but it’s worth getting the hang of it early on.
If you’re having trouble, there’s a good chance that you’re not leaving enough unspun fibre (fluff) at the end of the bit you want to join. I’ll try pulling off the last highly spun segment of yarn, and maybe running my nails down the end to unspin it more, creating free fluff. If all else fails, just don’t worry too much when you’re starting off, a messy join is better than feeling like you can’t join on at all. And if you have two lengths that just wont stay together, there’s nothing wrong with a knot!
How much twist?
If you’re wondering how much twist you need in your spinning, the answer is ‘probably more than you think’. If you have too much twist, you wont be able to pull the single straight, and it will eventually snap (so you need to draft more fibre out, for the twist to move into). Too little, and the single will just drift apart because the twist can’t hold the fibres together (so you need to add more twist with the spindle). When you ply you’re removing twist from the fibres, and the yarn is then held together by the ‘meta’ plying twist. You can have enough twist to keep the single in one piece, but find that it’s too little twist as you ply (at which point you could stop, and use your spindle to add more twist to the singles you haven’t plied yet. You can also do this if you finish plying and decide that you should have had more twist (or less) in the ply).
So while you’re getting the feel of it, era on the side of more twist rather than less. Your singles might feel a bit stiff, but when you ply it the softness and loft should come back as the individual fibres untwist. You can check this by pulling a length of the single you just spun away from the spindle, and doubling it over so that it ‘plies-back’ on itself, this is what the yarn should look like two-ply. In the end, practice is the key, try to ply your early spinning attempts even if you don’t think they’re ‘worth it’, they are, and it’s a learning experience.
(It’s also a good idea to keep a sample of your ply-back (tie an knot in the end to stop it untwisting), because as the singles sit on the spindle or in a ball, the fibres relax and you need to add more twist for the ply to be balanced. Freshly plied-back yarn gives you a good example of how your plied yarn should look, which you can check against as you ply. It’s also a good way to keep track off the weight and quality of the singles you’re spinning, to compare to ply-backs as you go. This is easier than trying to keep samples of singles, which are prone to relaxing, untwisting and otherwise changing over time. Plus differences in weight are easier to spot in doubled over yarn. Though all of this probably isn’t worth worrying about at first.)
Plying is a pretty simple process, you take two lengths of yarn spun in one direction and spin them together in the other direction. On a spindle this will means flicking the spindle in the opposite direction to which you did when you were using it to spin.
Commercial yarn is normally plied clockwise (and so spun counter-clockwise). I spin in the opposite directions. People have many opinions as to what is ‘best’, but there is no clearcut benefit of one direction over another, and certainly no reason to go against whatever feels comfortable when you’re starting out. It takes much less time to ply than it does to spin, which is why we will spin in the direction that is most comfortable, then ply in the other direction.
When you’re starting out I really recommend sticking to a basic two-ply. There’s no need to use more plies if you don’t have a specific purpose for the yarn, and most handspun are two-ply anyway. There are lots of ways you can manage your spun singles as you ply, with time you’ll work out what you prefer. A few options that should work well to start with include…
- Rolling singles into balls, putting the balls in bowls and plying from them
- Holding the singles together and rolling them into a single plying ball
- Winding singles onto a bobbin (often also known as a toilet paper roll), putting a knitting needle or chopstick through the bobbin and mounting them into holes made in a cardboard box (a ‘shoebox kate’)
- Winding singles straight onto the knitting needle or chopstick, to use with a shoebox kate
- You might even be able to slip the wound up single (the cop) straight off the spindle and onto the knitting needle or chopstick. This is easier if you can fit a straw over the shaft of the spindle – slip the cop onto the straw, insert the knitting needle/chopstick into the straw, and slip the cop onto it
It’s important to keep even tension on the singles as you ply, so that they twist together evenly. Separating them between your fingers is a good way to keep track of this (so is using a plying ball). If you’re really struggling with the singles kinking up and generally misbehaving, it can help to let them sit for a day or two, so that the fibers relax.
When you’re first learning to ply, simply twist the singles together until they look like the kind of yarn you want to make. Don’t worry if your yarn seems to have a bit too much twist and is kinking back on itself a little, this is necessary to create a ‘balanced’ yarn if the singles have had time to relax. Everything should even out when the yarn is washed (below). (If you want a more specific idea of how much to ply, refer to a ply-back sample made with freshly spun singles (above)).
It isn’t uncommon to find that you’ve underplied your yarn, I still do this from time to time. But you can always add more twist in a second pass though the spindle, even after you’ve washed you yarn. In fact you’re most likely to find that the yarn looks underplied after it’s been washed, just remember that you’ll need to wash it again once more twist has been added.
Finishing (washing) your yarn
And finally washing your yarn is important! It’s worth washing your early attempts, to give them the respect the deserve :) And to see how you’re really going. I use a niddy noddy or just my arm to wrap the yarn into a looped skein (in the case of my arm, between my elbow and thumb) and tie it with a few figure-eight ties.
I soak the skein in hot water (as hot as my tap goes) with delicate wash, or if I can’t find that, shampoo (because it’s all hair in the end). I leave it for maybe an hour, at least until the water has cooled. I make sure not to agitate the yarn, just pushing it down to ensure that it’s submerged, so that I avoid felting (because heat + agitation = felting). Waiting for the water to cool also helps avoid felting if you have to rinse the yarn (because sudden changes between hot and cold water can also = felting, but rinsing in hot water can be dangerous for your hands). Finally I press water out of the skein in a towel (avoiding wringing). I might ‘thwack’ the wet yarn, hitting it against something to help redistribute the twist and encourage the yarn to fluff up and ‘bloom’, or I might not, it depends how I feel and what I want. Then I hang the yarn up to dry.
Different people will finish their yarns in different ways, there’s no ‘one true way’, but this works for me. And it’s amazing the difference it can make, particularly if your yarn seems kinky and energised after plying (because you had to add twist to make up for the fibres relaxing in the single). In the end getting it wet and letting it dry is what counts, while hot water definitely helps.
And if all else fails
Enlist the help of a kitten…