Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Topic Tuesdays: Start Spinning

Cupcake Fibers Mixed BFL/Silk

Occasionally I get comments from beginning spinners or knitters who want to become spinners, so I thought I'd throw out my opinions on learning to spin. Please keep in mind that these are just my opinions, I am far from an expert, and there are a lot of resources and options out there.

A brief history: I learned to spin in 2007 in perhaps an unconventional way. I was looking to destash some yarn and I got an offer to trade for a Babe Spinning Wheel. I had to look up what it was because I had no idea that people spun their own yarn. Spinning did not come easily to me. I've heard of others being able to pick it up immediately but I was definitely not one of those people. i liked it enough to want a better wheel so i bought a majacraft rose that i loved so much that i would credit it with making me into a spinner. A few years after that, I bought a few spindles and learned to go low-tech, so i did it sort of backwards from the norm. I currently own several other fiber processing tools, including hand cards, a drum carder, several spindles (top-whorl, turkish, and supported), and 2 sets of combs.

i would not suggest going the route i went. If I were to do it all over again, here's what I would do:

  1. Invest in a quality but inexpensive spindle. A Greensleeves Bare Bones is $20.35 with shipping. I actually just bought one of these to use for demonstrations at the craft fair because I trust the maker and I won't care too much if something happens to it. There are many quality spindle crafters out there but if you are just starting out it can be hard to spend $60 on a spindle if you're going to be dropping the thing on the floor all the time.
  2. If you have in-person access to a spinner, get guidance from him/her. I am the most non-social person on the planet but even I would recommend real-life instruction if it's available to you. Books, videos, and internet forums are all well and good but there is no substitute for having an experienced person to show you how to spin.
    Assuming that you are like me and don't have access to in-person instruction or you are just that allergic to people, I'd recommend Abby Franquemont's Respect the Spindle video (though she doesn't demonstrate longdraw), or the craftsy class on spindling. i haven't taken the class but i'd recommend it anyway because there is the ability to have some interactivity with a real instructor. be careful looking at videos on you tube. there's some good ones but there is also a ton of crap out there.
  3. In a perfect world, the brand-new spinner would start with either really good pin-drafted roving or hand-combed top. I thought I would throw that out there just in case you know someone with wool combs who loves you enough to make you hand-combed top right off the bat, or maybe you live next door to Morro Fleece Works or something.
  4. It's way more likely that you'll be buying commercial top since it's the most commonly available. My suggestion is to pick fun multi-colored fiber to spin. When I was starting out I wanted to use bland undyed fiber because I was afraid of messing up the "good" stuff, but it's really more engaging to see how colors spin up than to use plain vanilla fiber. It's also easier to see in multi-colored fiber how twist effects the yarn. Some vendors that I recommend not only because of their lovely dyeing skills but because their prep is very solid:
    • Hello Yarn (but good luck buying any...i've only managed it once)
    • Fatcatknits
    • juliespins
    • cupcake fiber company (sells beautifully prepped batts)
    • Paradise Fibers if you want to go the undyed route. be careful if you decide to dye your own--it's easy to mat or felt spinning fiber and you want to make it as easy as possible on yourself for your first try
  5. For fiber type, I'm going to go outside the norm and suggest you don't start with BFL. BFL has a medium-long staple length and is supposed to be easier to spin, but it can be fairly easy to overspin and end up with rope. I also have a hard time even now getting decent yardage for the weight with BFL. It can be frustrating to do all that spinning and then end up with only 50 yards/4oz of mega-dense yarn. I would start with Corriedale, Falkland, shetland, or even merino. (but not superwash). secondary options: finn, polwarth, targhee, CVM--these are bouncier wools and can be a little tricky but shouldn't be too difficult.
    Fibers I would stay away for my first try at spinning: very short fibers like cotton, angora, cashmere, camel, yak; pure silk, bamboo, tencel (slippery and potential nasty plastic-y feel); longwools or mohair (i personally find them unpleasant for the most part, plus easy to twist-lock); alpaca (different "feel" from wool and easy to overspin). I would also stay away from those crazy art batts for my first try at spinning--once you get used to spinning plain wool then you'll have a better idea of how to spin the chunky stuff. it's a walk before you can run thing. same goes for blends. I would stay away from superwash b/c it's more slippery and less grippy. plus i really only tolerate superwash merino as some of the others (like superwash BFL) feel squeaky and gross to me
  6. Practice a little every day but don't overdo it. i remember the excitement of learning a new skill and wanting to keep at it forever and ever, but your body will appreciate it if you stick to only 15-20 minutes per day at first. you need time to build up muscle memory and you don't want to cause an injury. When learning short-forward draw, beware the Death Grip. You want to smooth and align your fibers--there's no need to pinch it to death and hurt your hands.
  7. Don't be too stressed if your early yarns don't come out perfect. You're not "wasting fiber," you're learning. Here's my first skein of handspun:
    My First Handspun
    and here's my most recently finished skein:
    London Panda Handspun
    If I can figure it out, trust me--you can too.

A few other thoughts:

  • Handspun is not millspun yarn. By the nature of being spun by a person rather than by machine, it will never be as consistent and "perfect" as millspun yarn can be. Human inconsistency gives it life, beauty, and character that millspun yarn will always lack.
  • You might really be into the technical aspects of spinning. I am not. I spin because it's soothing and meditative for me. Counting treadles and measuring twists per inch is the exact opposite of fun in my book. If you like to do that, great! but don't worry if you don't want to but the "experts" are doing it. as long as you make yarn that you enjoy, you're a spinner.
  • Handspinning gives you control. As you get more experienced you can make yarn to suit your preferences. Living in a cooler climate, I prefer warm, airy, lightweight, bouncy yarn with good stitch definition so my favorite yarn to spin for knitting is a woolen-spun 3ply. I am just learning to weave so my current interests in spinning are moving more towards a worsted-spun 2ply to suit my new hobby. Do what you want. Maybe you want to spin a Noro-like yarn but without the hay and scratchy bits. Maybe you want to spin a yarn with malabrigo softness but with more durability. you're in charge. do what you like.
  • Here's a do-what-i-say-not-what-i-do bit of advice: don't rush out immediately to buy all the "best" equipment. it's really better to start small and then test-drive/research wheels or other tools so you'll have a better idea of what you like and would use. i have a bunch of fiber processing tools that mostly sit idle because either i don't love to do it, or i just don't have time. it can be an expensive lesson to learn.
  • Use your handspun. You won't really appreciate how special it is unless you ball it up and knit, crochet, weave, felt (yikes!), or whatever with it. If your yarn just sits in skein form on a shelf you will have less knowledge of the adaptations you need to make to spin better yarn. Plus it's just really fun to make stuff with your own handspun.
    allspunup sweater

So there's my 2 cents on spinning. I hope that it's been helpful and encouraging. just one last thing: if you get some experience under your belt and decide you want to spin the thinnest yarn that you possibly can "just to see if you can do it" you will end up plying the same yarn for a bazillion years until your arms want to fall off. and then you'll never use it b/c such a thin yarn is terribly impractical. or maybe you're not like me and you will. whatev. i'm not the boss of you.
Gale's Art Tussah Silk Handspun


  1. This is an awesome post! I learned to spin the 'proper' way - drop spindle first, then to a wheel - but even then there are a lot of things I know now that I really wish I'd known for the first few years I was spinning. (Specifically, drafting methods other than short draw - I can spin gorgeous yarn, but it's super dense and I had a lot of trouble getting good yardage out of my fiber until I learned to draft in other ways.)

    I'd totally echo your recommendation to learn with a nice easy wool fiber, like merino. I also had the good luck of having a LYS that stocked spinning wheels, which gave me the chance to test out different kinds of wheels before I bought my very own.

  2. Completely awesome post! I keep saying I want to get into it, and I do have a spindle... I took a spinning class several years back and felt like I was getting the hang of it. But you know. Thanks for sharing your experience! You have spun some beautiful yarns. ;)

  3. I've been spinning for 4 months - wish I would have read this article first! Absolutely brilliant, thank you so much for the insight! We need more people like you encouraging us newbies (or wannabes) with good advice.



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