Things I know about spinning that I don’t know I know

Having spun with a lot of less-than-ideal fiber in my life, largely because of when and where I began exploring the craft and partly because of my interest in rare breeds (where survival takes a higher priority position than fleece quality, I find there are things I know how to do that I'm not at all aware of.

Take, for example, one of the fleeces I've been working with.

It's from a breed that is raised primarily for meat—one of the Down breeds. The fleece is nearly a throwaway, not because it's inherently bad—not at all—but because the current dominant market does not value it. The wool is fine enough to be worn next to the skin (wild guess: 25 microns, possibly finer, and yes, that's the skinny end of the range for a Down wool; it's potentially exquisite) and exceptionally springy, with crimp I wish I had the equipment to photograph.

The sample I have is not great handspinning fiber, and that's neither the sheep's nor the grower's fault. The sheep had nothing to say about the way it was shorn, and the grower probably can't sell the wool for enough to pay for the shearing.


The jumbled, indistinct staples obscure the presence of second cuts and neps. I can catch a few of the second cuts and pull them out as I pick the fiber, but because of the wool's springiness and crimp the short bits hang on stubbornly, or drag out good wool along with stumpy stuff. There are a whole lot of small bits: only frustrating to try to eliminate. The fiber lengths vary between 1 and 2.75 inches (2.5 and 7cm). That's a very wide range, attributable to the shearing.

The only reasonable way to prepare this wool is by carding, because it's soft, short, and irregular in length. Softness directs me to the fine-toothed carders. My nine rolags aren't pretty, but I can pick out a few more second cuts as I prepare them.


And then I spin.

Ideally, a fiber like this would make a perfect woolen yarn: bouncy, full of air, resilient. In this case, a woolen draft would be an exercise in discovering new types of unprintable vocabulary. The preparation isn't, and can't be, even enough to draft out smoothly. So I use a short forward draw, a worsted technique. I'm sacrificing some of the fiber's inherent qualities to compensate for the shearing-related drawbacks in this particular sample.

A huge advantage to the worsted technique is the amount of control it gives me. I stretch out the fibers as I'm drafting, which also lets me thin out, and securely incorporate in the twist, many of the tiny neppy areas and all of the shorter fibers, which might otherwise clump up into loose slubs.

Most of the second cuts arrive at the drafting zone looking (and feeling) like small elephants. If I were spinning a thicker yarn with less control, they'd simply hide in the fiber mass, get caught in the twist, and turn into lumps that would look like huge pills. They'd also make twist build up on either side of them, producing harsh, wiry stretches of yarn.

As it is, I can feel them before I see them, then pluck them away from the main fibers, which are stretched under a bit of tension now and so are okay with letting go. The surrounding fibers get messed up a little, but in the grand scheme of this yarn the resulting irregularity is a non-issue.



By the time I finish my nine rolags, I've eliminated quite a few potential bumps.


For this much yarn (singles):


Obviously, there's still a lot of unevenness, but the strand is solid and as good as it's likely to get, considering.

The plied yarn:


It's far, far from perfect, but it's serviceable. It tells me I'd be delighted to see more wool from this sheep, or its cousins, in another year.

Any contemporary book talking about how to handle a fleece like this would recommend woolen processing. What I know about spinning is this: how to choose each step based on the one that came before. As I moved through the process and my options, this fleece became a puzzle to solve: which steps would let it be the best yarn possible, despite its shortcomings?

I didn't know that I knew that. I take it for granted.

And here's a view of the sun porch I'm working on, taken by one of the writers I'm sharing the cabin with when she went out for a late afternoon walk:


I was spinning the yarn described here. Pretty mellow, despite the challenges.

(Photo of me copyright Judy Fort Brenneman.)


8 thoughts on “Things I know about spinning that I don’t know I know”

  1. The very first fleece I spun was a filthy Suffolk, full of briars and other VM, that I had begged to have from the owner. Spun it worsted and tight, and it became socks.

    Sometimes beginning with lesser than best, and not knowing any better, one learns a lot,

  2. I love the decisions that are made by experienced spinners. It’s not working this way, my hands will try another approach. My mind will follow with a third solution… this meshes nicely with a long conversation I am having elsewhere about the increasing technicalization of spinning vocabulary. (see the most recent Spin-off and the number of different varieties of “long draw” described there…)

    Instead of fixating on the technique’s name or sticking to it doggedly, I think the experienced spinner will intuitively work towards the technique that works best with the fiber she has. You are doing just that!

  3. Isn’t that true? I spun first with Dorset and Suffolk from meat flocks, because that was what we could get. I remember an “oatmeal colored” fine fleece I bought from a well-known grower whose ability to eliminate VM has *got* to have improved with the years. And there were the three Karakul fleeces, all bought at once, different colors–I learned so much! (Wove a rug.)

    Right now, I’m wearing a not-very-well spun sweater of my own making that I wear every day. I forget I have it on. Other people notice it, ask if I made it, and I have to admit I also spun the yarn, and I look at it, and I think, “Yeesh,” but then I also think that it’s comfortable enough to wear every day and it’s much better than a sweatshirt. I have it on now. . . .

  4. Joanne, the development of vocabulary and systematization in spinning reminds me of what has happened in knitting. SOME DAY spinning will get back to where knitting is getting now: is it working? are you happy? NO PROBLEM!

    People give names to drafting techniques in an attempt to communicate through two-dimensional media–and I include computer screens in that two-dimensional clump, even with YouTube included. This was one of my major frustrations in editing the magazine: I had to put measurements and words in, in order to get the most information across through the available communication portal.

    In part, I feel a bit responsible for the technical approach being taken now by many spinners, because we *did* move toward describing twists per inch and the like (useful, but not the be-all). My *favorite* way of describing a yarn was to print a photograph of it at full size. Which I endeavored to do every time it was possible. That way you can derive the TPI and WPI and twist angles if you want, or you can look at it and understand the construction without reducing to numbers: straight from eyes to fingers, without a detour through a calculator. (I do like calculators and math: they’re just not essential here.)

    Drafting styles are not mechanical. There are not neat dividing lines between them. They are fluid, like dancing. When someone says they used the XYZ draw and don’t describe what it was, then, frankly, that’s not helpful–and I don’t want spinning to get to a point where spinners Must Master the Following Five Specific Drafting techniques (whatever they might be). That may happen. Then I hope it will all loosen up again.

    Gee, you made me write another could-be-a-blog-post {grin}.

  5. Must Master the Following Five Specific Drafting techniques


    I once looked at getting “accredited” as a “Spinner” and carefully examined the syllabus: one of the projects I would have had to submit for the first level was a collection of very specific differentially drafted and spun samples from a wide range of sheep breeds.

    Needless to say, I figured I could spend my time and money (and finishing the programme was going to take a great deal of both) better elsewhere….

  6. As a self-taught neophyte spinner, I find myself shying away from all the techno-math. Spinning seems like such an organic process, that reducing it to TPI and WPI is intrusive and intimidating. I just want to enjoy turning wool into yarn. With each experience, I learn more. I look forward to the day when I’ll have the body of knowledge to be able to make choices like you’ve just made with this particular wool.

    Speaking of this particular wool, if the breed was more respected for its wool, would greater care have been taken with the shearing? When the product is perceived as having no value, no effort is made to preserve the value. Which results in a product with no value. Sad, really.

  7. Good for you, Gayle. The numbers and concepts can be *very* useful. For some people, though, they should be the seasoning and not the main course. Do you know Maggie Casey’s new book on spinning from Interweave? If not, you might enjoy it.

    Yes, if the breed is more respected for its wool, greater care would be taken and the wool would have more value. Sometimes breeders can make that shift; sometimes practical constraints keep them from doing so. It’s not even appropriate for all breeders. I just hate seeing the wool of certain breeds denigrated when it can be useful in ways that other wools cannot–when we overlook a treasure because we’re not accustomed to focusing on it.

    Backing away from soapbox temporarily. . . .

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