Learning to Spin Yarn

Last summer, I took up an additional interest: Spinning. I’ve talked about it before, and I’ve even shown a few of my first yarn creations. Since I’ve been making a dedicated effort for a few months now, I wanted to write a bit of my experiences and steps at learning spinning.

I mentioned that I did not see this sudden burst of interest coming: spinning was not a long held dream or even a regularly recurring thought in my craft life. I had a simple spindle (bought at a living history fair a decade ago) and an equally ancient bag of toy stuffing in my stash. When it took off, I was as bewildered about it as the spindle that was suddenly disturbed from its years long slumber in the back of the supply cabinet must have been!

Having these materials to get me started made the first steps less of a mountainous effort and investment. The spindle is a low whorl style, on the heavier side and has a hook at the top. The toy filling was a bit of an unknown – the package says it’s wool, and it’s a combed top preparation, but that’s all I know out about it.

How I’ve been Learning

From the day I decided I wanted to learn, I tried to spin a bit almost everyday. I don’t think I ever sat down to spin for hours on end or whatever but I did do lots of small slots of time here and there. I tried to consciously do this from the end of July until about October. In the beginning I was concentrating on technique solely, and did not really bother with how the output actually looked. So I was focussed on spindle handling, drafting, flicking of the spindle etc. Once I got a decent handle of that I started to focus more on improving yarn consistency, amount of twist and thickness and so on.

Learning a new skill with so much history is a big beast of an undertaking. There is loads of stuff I simply had no idea of so there was and still is a lot to learn for me. The first weeks were a bit overwhelming, because there is so much skill based knowledge as well as more factual stuff. I have the tendency to really emerge myself in something when I get I interested in something and can really deep dive in whatever it is that I want to know stuff about. So it was with spinning as well, but I tried to pace myself a bit more as I was keenly aware I was still acquiring the most basic skills and tried to focus on training my hand movements and muscle memory. So essentially I was enjoying reading about different sheep breeds and fibre preparations methods and whatnot, but not concerning myself with actually implementing any of that and instead focused on the basics and bare bones.

Spinning Development

Since then, I’ve learned a lot and my skills, while still beginner, have made leaps and bounds from those first tentative days. My technique has improved, but likewise the more intuitive things that you learn by doing, like judging twist, have naturally improved by doing it. I think it helps that I’m an experienced knitter, so I understand more about how yarn works and I know what to look for in a yarn that I want to knit with. There is a lot of stuff you can learn from reading, like how to spin coarser wool, or wool with a short staple length, but the level of understanding you have of that stuff from reading compared to when you actually spin it is very different. One of such things is finding out how big a part fibre prep is in spinning, or can be. A bit like how you have no idea how big a part the pattern cutting or ironing stuff is going to be when you start out sewing!

Spinning has given me a newfound love for natural occurring colours of fleece and for the ins and outs of sheep breeds. I mean, I always was interested in that as much as anyone who works a lot with wool probably is. Handling the raw undyed materials in this way though has multiplied that love. Reading more about sheep and other fibre carrying animals has that effect too but I think simply seeing how a small bit of roving becomes a thread is magical. One thing I’m curious about is finding local yarn. I found out that there is an old sheep breed that is super specific to the small area I grew up in. There aren’t a lot left of them though, and I’m not even sure if their wool is particularly suitable for spinning, but it would be cool to create something with such a history to it, wouldn’t it? It would require an arsenal of tools and skills that I don’t have yet to turn raw fleece into spinnable fiber, so it’s a long term plan if it is to be!

Like any craft, spinning depends a lot on personal style and preference. If you line up any number of spinners you’ll find a whole array of equally valid but different approaches, motivations and reasons for doing the craft. That individuality within a collective is a big part of what attracts me to crafting in the first place. There’s freedom and creativity in making your craft your own, tailored to your preferences. For me, a lot about the learning process in the beginning stages of spinning is exploring and finding out those preferences.

To compare it to knitting, you start out learning your material preferences: do you prefer wooden, metal or plastic needles? Are you a magic loop or a DPN person? Do you prefer knit flat or knit in the round? Finding out along the way can mean it differs per type of project. This might be a less black-and-white stage of any learning process, as nobody can really advice what’s right or wrong, but you have to figure it out yourself. In any case, this is where I’m at right now in my spinning development. I’ll likely be at this stage of exploring and practising for some time to come as it really takes time and experience, but I’m enjoying it and leaning into the process of learning as a discovery.

Helpful Sources

I’ve been learning on my own with the help of books, blogs and videos. Getting lessons in person was not an option for me for lots of reasons (in large part geography and finance related – not to mention that whole global pandemic going on) and spinning being even more of a niche than knitting is, I also don’t know anyone in person who does spinning. It’s not a huge problem as I’ve learned all my other crafts in a similar manner and do well by figuring things out as I go. The book I’ve been using the most is Respect the Spindle by Abby Franquemont. I got this book when I bought the low whorl spindle about 10 years ago, and promptly did little with it. Overall this is the source that has been the most helpful to me in my learning so far. Most books and podcast focus on wheels and while there is some stuff that translates fairly directly a lot of stuff doesn’t, so it was great to have something on hand that spotlights the actual tools I’m using to learn. Another good source is Ply Magazine, a spinning magazine whose issues all focus on single topic such as supported spindles or fibre preparation. I recently started to dip into these, and I think they’ll be a treasure trove later in my spinning development.

I’ve learned a lot from watching spinning vloggers and podcasters, as more than with any other crafts I learned on my own I sometimes found it really helpful simply to see someone do it (even just for reassurance). There are three spinning podcasts that I found particularity helpful. The first is The Tiny Fibre Studio, Becks did a video series following the Ply Magazine 52 Weeks spin-along and the videos from that series contain a wealth of information. They are almost all wheel based but as a new spinner just learning the ropes these videos (and the accompanying ply book and issues) also served as an eye-opener to what is possible to do as a hand spinner. She has also just started a series focussed on beginners though this is again primarily wheel focussed. Another podcast I found helpful is The Knitting Expat Podcast. In addition to her regular podcast videos Mina has a series of spinning related videos documenting her own journey of learning how to spin. I found her videos on how to make and spin batts, rolags and mix fibre particularly useful. It’s one of those things were for someone who is just starting out it’s really useful to just see someone do it. The final podcast that I found useful in my learning is The Soulful Spinner. Particular the video on spindle spinning was helpful when I was just starting out but Lisa has videos on using hand combs, fibre studies and support spindles. There are loads of other videos and video tuturials out there of course and what you find helpful is largely style dependent (both learning style and spinning style you aspire too) but I thought I would mention these in case they will help someone out there.

A final source I want to mention the Fluff to Stuff 2021 year round spinning event. It is hosted by the above mentioned Mina, aka The Knitting Expat, Marce; aka Hey Brown Berry and Grace; aka Grace the Babbler. It is a loose challenge to encourage spinners to knit with their handspun and spin with more intention. I think this sort of a separate skill to master within spinning and might be good to focus on as I get better in my spinning. I’m still a super beginner and really bad with organised communal things with deadlines (and also painfully introverted) so perhaps doing so in the form of a communal challenge isn’t the best fit for me right now but it might be helpful for others? If you want to know more about it here is an informational video about it that links to all the important places.

Tools I’m Working With

Among the tools that I work with is still that low whorl drop spindle I started out with but in the months I’ve been spinning I also started working with two Turkish spindles. One is a larger wooden one that a friend of mine, who isn’t a spinner or textile worker but is a maker in every other sense of the word, made for me. This spindle was made from scrap wood he had lying around and is about a third lighter than my low whorl drop spindle which makes it more suitable for spinning thinner. That same friend also crafted a niddy noddy for me from the stick of an old wooden broom. He made me two shaft lengths for the niddy noddy so I can make larger and smaller skeins.

My latest spinning addition is a Turkish spindle made by a local spindle maker. This one was custom made, after I chose and picked all kind of specifications such as wood type and size from a menu of options. This spindle is tiny compared to my other spindles and only weighs 14 grams (less than half of what my friend-made Turkish spindle weighs!). I got this spindle to try and spin even thinner. It’s also my only spindle that doesn’t have a hook, which I thought would be a much bigger of a deal than it actually was. I first tested this out with a small bit of blue variegated test fibre was included with the spindle. Since then I’ve been spinning some undyed Norwegian wool on it.

Of Cats and Spindles

Ah, as many cats, as many reactions to their owners using a spindle. At the start of my spindling journey I thought there was a chance of the cats maybe thinking the spindle was a toy for them… well, either that or they’d be spooked by a large spinning thing hanging about. Turns out that they were mostly indifferent to the two bigger spindles! The smaller, 14 gram, Turkish spindle is a more attractive toy because of it’s size, but unless I’m literally swinging it in front of their noses when they are in a playful mood, they leave it alone.

I’ve even become pretty skilled in spinning while they are on my lap or snoozing against me. It’s slightly more cumbersome and I can’t drop the spindle as far was I would ordinarily do but it is very doable. They very much love the spinning fibre though! I think I mentioned that they have pretty similar yarn tastes as mine (their love for Lopi rivals mine) so with fibre too they show a preference to hardier fibres and also…uh woollier smelling ones. Unless they go on a rampage I don’t mind them lying on it or rubbing their faces against it or whatever. This is a cat household and they deserve fibre joy. I live in a small apartment so getting cat hair everywhere is inevitable, anyway!

The Future

So, what does the future hold? I’ve lots left to learn, both in improving my foundational basics and learning new things. I’ve realised that I am very much a knitter first, spinner second kind of spinner. What I mean is that I want to learn to spin the yarns I would love to knit with. I like rustic, woolly yarns, and if you look at my projects here, you get an idea of the types and what weights I knit a lot with. I want to spin those with consistency. Spinning equipment can be quite an investment and as an added bonus having a better idea of the types of yarn I’m interested in spinning helps to prioritise what to save up for and be on the lookout for on the second hand market.

I want to learn to spin on a supported spindle, because they’re so well suited to woollen spun yarn. Supported spindles are tools that were traditionally used to spin fibre in the area where one of my parents and half of my family are from, so it seems a meaningful way to connect to that part of my history. I’ve also been tentatively looking at spinning wheels. Spinning and learning on a wheel is a whole different ball game from spindles, but I’m getting some ideas of what to look for. The offerings online here are few and far in between, so fingers crossed something turns up.

I’d love to broaden and learn to do even more of the whole process. I’d like to start making my own fiber blends, heck, I’d love to go the whole length from raw fleece. It would give me the chance to work with local sheep breeds while offering a whole new set of skills to learn. It’s definitely part of the long game –if only because I’d need to get so many more new tools- but it’s nice to have horizons to dream about. I feel like the more I learn about spinning the more things I find to learn about which is I guess part of the beginner experience and what it’s like to be a beginner and I’m cherishing that.

All that being said I want to let this craft grow in an organic way. I don’t feel pressured to have to do it all. While there is stuff to learn about and I have some goals in my spinning I’m not planning or pressuring myself to do it all at once. So far I found spinning a really calming, grounding and intuitive experience and I want to keep it that way and not dampen it by putting far-fetched targets and pressures on it before I’m ready for those.

My First Few Skeins

Finally I’d like to to finish this post by showing you some of the skeins in my small but precious box of handspun! All of them spun on my spindles and using fibre that I had in my possession for years, mostly stuff given to me from people who know that I “craft”. Consequently most of the fibre content of the stuff I’ve spun up so far is unspecified but I’m ok with that and quite pleased to have found a use for that stash while learning a new skill. I’m currently spinning up the last bits of that collection of ancient felting fibre and while I’m excited to start trying out different breeds and the like I think it’s important to not be snobby about this sort of stuff. If it’s spinable it’s good to go in my book. I’m going to show you the first four skeins I finished in the order of finishing them. I think that’s helpful to see for others starting out as you can see my development as a spinner step by step.

They are all 2 ply skeins. I never really knit with singles (except for Lopi, but I feel those are different), so I just plied all my skeins right from the start. I spun them either worsted from a combed top preparation or semi worsted from rolags. So this too should make for some easy comparisons and following my development through finished skeins.

The first skein I finished was spun using a white combed top that I mentioned I initially bought to use as toy stuffing ten years ago. I spun it on my heaviest spindle (the low whorl spindle). This was my learning yarn and I spun it over the summer in a extremely hot apartment. I have fond memories of working on it late in the evenings on my balcony under the starry night sky (and being chuffed when I realised I could do that outside and not have it fall on the floor in chatters at all times!).

Then I spun two sister skeins of the same fibre. I spun the singles on the Turkish spindle my friend made and plied them on my heavier low whorl spindle. I used another unspecified wool that I once got as a gift from someone. I think it’s was meant to be used for felting crafts. It’s a combed top consisting of three shades of green; light, mid and dark green. I blended these shades together on a diy blending board that I might talk about in a future post and then turned the blend into rolags. Making and spinning from the rolags was a learning process in itself; i.e: figuring out the right amount of wool and thickness per rolag and best thickness of knitting needles to roll them with (this was size 10 for me). I also learned more about blending colours as my goal is to be able to spin well blended heathery colours. I didn’t get there with this first attempt, though I’m still pleased with this tonal spun yarn. Next time I could try to get it through the blending board a second time, and if that doesn’t work I’ll get some carding brushes and try it on that.

These three skeins also give a pretty good idea about my skill progression. The first one is bulky and has really pronounced thick and thin differences. My first rolag spun skein has a much more even consistency and is about an aran weight. While working the final skein, spun from the same green rolags, I made a concentrated effort to get it as fine as I could spin. As a result this skein has the finest weight, about a light dk. Both of the rolag spun skeins have a lot more air in them than the first skein which I spun from a combed top. I think that the white one has a smoother spun feel than the rolag spun, which makes sense as rolags are a woolen spun preparation and the combed top is a worsted prep.

The final skein is made from Norwegian wool (yes that is as much detail as was included on the bag!). It’s a beautiful undyed heathery mid grey. It has quite a long staple length and is a bit coarser than the wool I used to spin the previous skeins, making it a different experience altogether. I spun this on the smallest of the Turkish spindles I own. It took me quite a while to spin it all up on my spindle! I worked on this in November and December and I think it’s the best in term of consistency. It’s also the finest I’ve been able to spin a yarn with it’s fingering weight, and the largest yardage in a skein I’ve spun so far. I could easily used this in one of my colourwork projects if I wanted too. I’ve quite a bit of this fibre left so I’m planning on spinning more sister skeins for this skein.

I’m super satisfied with these skeins. When I went to take a photo of them together a real warm sense of pride and achievement washed over me as they represent months of spinning and learning. They also represent new beginnings! My current project is the purple fibre you see in some of the pictures in this post – it’s the last of the old stash I’ve got, which feels like I’m nearing the end of the first tutorial level of this game…

That’s it for me for now. I hope you enjoyed reading about my deep dive into yarn spinning. It’s been a delight to immerse myself in something so rooting and joyful especially with everything going on and I am excited to see which paths it will lead me to in the future both near and far.

xxx

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