Tuesday, May 19, 2015


Hi buddies!

Now that we've gotten through the highlight reel of the last few years and the exciting acquisition of my spinning wheel Elizabeth, I can tell you all about the Joys of Spinning.


I can pass long, peaceful, quiet hours sitting in my backyard spinning yarn. When I'm spinning I don't need to think. I just need to move my hands and my foot in a calm, practiced, soothing rhythm, with only the rhythm of the wheel or occasional scream of a neighbor to break the quiet.

It makes sense that spinning is so enjoyable for me. I like making order out of chaos. Folding a clean load of laundry, for example. Neatening up the kitchen counter. Don't get me wrong-- I love chaos as well. But sometimes I like to take a little piece of the chaos and organize it. Spinning gives me another way to do that. I can take raw materials and make something out of them. And I mean RAW. Straight off the sheep in some cases. My friend Adam likes to rank his friends in order of their usefulness come the apocalypse. My knitting and sewing skills got me on the list, but now I would be an even MORE valuable addition to our post-apocalyptic society. Give me a sheep and I'll make you a sweater with know-how and manpower alone. I'll clothe every last Mad Max.

Paula, my spinning teacher, told me that it takes approximately 40 hours of practice to perfect the art of spinning. I haven't clocked my time on the wheel, but judging by the quality of the yarn I've made over the last few months, it's taken me about fifteen skeins to get from clueless beginner to fairly proficient spinner. And today I am going to take you on that journey with me.

First, we need to cover exactly what these raw materials are. Yarn is generally spun from animal and plant fibers. The most common material used is sheep's wool. If you have access to a sheep's fleece, you can prepare the fibers yourself by cleaning the fleece and then carding it, using a pair of brushes with metal teeth to comb the fibers into usable rolls of wool.


You may have tried this during a childhood visit to one of those restored nineteenth-century villages where they show you how to churn butter and make candles. (Best field trip ever.) If you don't happen to have a fleece or if you don't feel like spending hours of your life snipping little dried pieces of dung out of the one you do have, there are plenty of commercially available fibers, pre-cleaned, pre-dyed, and ready for spinning, that you can buy. This is called roving or top.

I started off using some crappy roving I found in a knitting shop here in Jerusalem. As I got more into spinning I started shopping online to find quality wool. I ended up ordering a shipment from a British supplier (to no one's surprise, Britain is kind of where it's at sheep's-woolwise). Not knowing exactly what I was doing, I ordered a little of this and a little of that-- ending up with a package of almost two pounds of wool of varying types and colors. Here are a few:

French Merino wool in natural brown

21 micron wool in assorted colors

70% merino/30% silk blend

This is what roving looks like before it is turned into yarn. It's just a rope of fairly loose fiber.

Okay. Now you know what we're dealing with here. We begin at the beginning. This is the first yarn I ever spun on Elizabeth (bear with me if you've seen these images before):

I had not yet gotten Elizabeth into perfect working order when I made this. The yarn is a mess-- even a non-knitter can see that. It's kinked, meaning that it's overspun, and also wispy-- underspun. The weight (thickness of the thread) varies wildly from ultrathin to ultrathick. It's uneven, unbalanced, unusable. I class it as part of my "hopeless beginner" stage.

That stage quickly progressed into "slightly more confident beginner" and I began to make yarns like this. I've never been very patient, so I was eager to experiment with combining different colors before I actually knew how to spin well. So this happened:

I didn't realize at this time that I was not understanding the very basic principle of spinning. Spinning is the act of feeding loose fibers into a mechanism which twists it into a hardy string. That, I got. But what I didn't get was that very instrumental "feeding" action. I was drafting the roving (i.e., splitting the rope down the middle into quarters or eighths or what have you-- manageable pieces) and simply feeding them straight into the orifice (yes, that's what it's called, I know, I know) of the spinning wheel without paying any attention to the principle of DRAWING the fibers out as I fed them in. My Urethra* moment came as I began to spin some of the French Merino roving I had ordered. But in the meantime I was making bulky yarn with bumpy, awkward joins (the point at which you attach a new piece of fiber to the yarn you're spinning to make a continuous thread) and I was running out of fiber strangely quickly, with not a lot of yardage to show for it. Clearly I was doing something wrong. But I put that thought on the back burner because, as I am rather impatient, I wanted to start learning fancy new skills before I had mastered the basic ones. That led to PLYING!

Plying is the act of spinning several single threads ("singles" in the spinning lingo) together into a stronger, thicker thread. This can be done on a drop spindle or on a spinning wheel. Here's my first attempt, done on the drop spindle (which I have never exactly gotten the hang of, by the way):

Yucky. But I don't have to tell YOU that. You can see how unevenly twisted the yarns are, how unbalanced the plying is, and how generally disappointing the whole endeavor turned out.

I plied a few more yarns, with okay results. I continued to progress in my yarn-making. During this period I made this, which wasn't too bad:

It wasn't too great either, but it was respectable. I tried plying on the wheel and got this:

Eh. I had used one of my earliest yarns, so it was not impressive-- and plying on the wheel turned out to be a hassle. You ply in the opposite direction of spinning. In other words, when you spin a yarn you turn the wheel to the right; when you ply, you turn it to the left. This is very counter-intuitive, and it confused Elizabeth A LOT, poor thing. She's getting on in years, and if I use her for a few hours without giving her a break, she'll start getting a bit cranky-- squeaking in protest, refusing to turn smoothly, popping off her drive band. She's a bit temperamental. It's why we get along so well.

Anyway. Everything was about to change. It happened one Sunday afternoon while my roommate was photographing me spinning as part of a "Behind the Scenes" theme for a photography group she is in. Some of her shots:

Left: drafting the roving into smaller pieces. Right:spinning.

Left: attempting to correct the mistake of letting too much twist into the wool (the correction itself incorrect-- I figured out a better way). Right: action shot.

It was then that the sudden understanding of how spinning works flashed into my head. URETHRA!* You don't just feed the pieces into the orifice (snigger). You DRAW out the fibers slowly, letting them catch each other and pull each other smoothly onto the bobbin. I hadn't been able to make a smooth yarn with a consistent weight because I was feeding in the drafted pieces as-is, without drawing the correct amount of fiber through my fingers as I worked. It's hard to explain. At any rate, it was a watershed moment. I understood why my yarn thus far had been bumpy and uneven and ugly. From then on everything was different.

I practiced my new skill on some of the roving I had ordered and got this. I call it my "legit" phase, though not exactly a triumph. Before washing and drying, a process which removes a lot of the kink and curl from yarn, it looked like this:

Left: yarn spun during urethra* moment. Right: first yarn spun using the proper principles of spinning.

Both yarns were far from perfect. Each one had short tightly coiled sections, which meant I had spun the yarn too fine and too much. And each yarn was irregularly weighted (i.e., of varying thickness).

After washing/stretching/drying:

It doesn't look too bad. It's still not perfection. I know that because I have ACHIEVED perfection since I made these. Okay, maybe not perfection, but pretty damn close.

Continuing on. "Pre-perfection" phase. I made this. It was my longest continuous yarn ever, and it was a carefully designed, strategically made marbled single using both the brown merino and white wool. It wasn't so easy drafting both of these fibers simultaneously-- and you can see where I messed up. It's not perfect and not totally even. But it was the best thing I had made so far. (Admittedly, each yarn I make is "the best that I have made so far.") I named it "Tweedy":

So pretty!

I was proud of this. I spun it very finely, intending to make another single and ply them together. But I had run out of white wool by the time I finished. This yarn was 160 yards long, which is the longest I've made yet! I still had a lot of brown merino left-- so I made another single. And oh, oh my, it was GLORIOUS. Feast your eyes upon it:

LOOK AT THAT! I MADE that! It's so uniform! So even! So thin! SO BEAUTIFUL! I couldn't believe my own powers of creation. It still wasn't perfect, though. There were many points at which I had spun the yarn too finely, and when I was winding it onto the niddy-noddy the thread broke in several places, which is a shameful thing, but I soldiered on.

Preparing to ply was a long and annoying process involving tons of equipment. I had to first wind each single from the bobbin onto the niddy noddy, tie the skein, let it sit for a day, then use the Swift my dad made for me and my ball winder to wind each single into a center-pull ball. Most people ply off of bobbins, but since I only possess one bobbin, I have to use this alternative method, which is certainly less efficient and possibly less effective, but it does work. I ended up with these guys:

They don't look to be the same size, but Tweedy was a slightly heavier weight-- fingering-- whereas the newer, more perfect single was light fingering, so it appeared smaller even though they were almost exactly the same length (go me!). I prepared Elizabeth and plied like the wind. Though plying is much faster than spinning, this took a surprisingly long time because of the yardage. I filled the bobbin completely and had to wind the yarn off twice, cutting and tying the ends together. Here's a blurry picture of what plying looks like:

You simply feed the two threads together into the orifice, using the same method of damming and releasing twist that you use for spinning. I haven't perfected this yet-- the plies are not uniformly even. But they look pretty damn good. Here's the finished product in all its glory:

Ta da!
Approximately 155 yards (5 yards or so were lost from each single through the plying process) of two-ply, DK weight yarn. Though I did wash and dry the skein, it barely needed it. My theory is that plying uses up the yarn's extra twist and significantly evens out any kinky areas. Ain't she a beaut! This is a viable, usable yarn. Not sure yet what I'll make. If I use this in combination with one of the other yarns I could probably get a hat out of it.

But I STILL haven't even gotten to the crowning glory. The TRIUMPH. The PERFECTION. Now, I I fully expect that in the course of time, as I become a better spinner, I'll look back at this and think: yeah, that was okay. But at this moment, I am bursting with pride. 

I wanted to try something funky and colorful. I laid out my assorted colors and chose a few that seemed to go together. Then I split each piece in half. I split each half into quarters, and laid them out like this, repeating the color sequence four times:

Then I spun. I spun into the night. Brown--orange--maroon--green--blue. I'd tried to split them up evenly so that each section would be similar lengths, roughly. The colors lined up prettily on my bobbin.

I tried to make the yarn uniformly fine. I was pleased to see that there were no hard, tightly coiled sections-- meaning I hadn't overspun-- and I was careful to avoid lumps and irregularities. I've mostly figured out now how to correct those things. (It's all in the draw.) Once I had used up all the pieces I'd laid out, I took a short-cut and instead of moving the yarn from the bobbin to the niddy-noddy to the swift to the ball winder I simply wound the yarn straight from the bobbin onto the ball winder. I intended to ply it right away, so there was no need-- or time-- for it to "set" on the niddy noddy. Then I repeated the whole process with the second halves of each color. My original thought was that each section would be about the same length so that when I plied, the sections on each single would match up neatly, but that wasn't the reality. There was a lot of overlap between colors. But it ended up looking awesome so I didn't mind. And when I was done plying, I had 100 yards of this GORGEOUS, smooth, even, beautifully spun, beautifully plied, multicolored yarn. I can't stop looking at it and touching it. 


Okay. It's not PERFECTION exactly, but I'm not a perfectionist, and this is REALLY FREAKING GOOD. I love it so much. I don't know if I can even knit it. I might just have to leave it in this beautiful form and admire it and force other people to admire it for the rest of its days.

...At least until I make the next perfect yarn. ;)

*I realize that urethra is not the word you shout out at the moment of revelation. This is a reference to a hilarious Netflix show. I hope you got it.

1 comment:

  1. Amazing!!! You really have taken your skills (spinning - as well as writing) to the next level (maybe even several...). Love it!