A Couple of Questions Answered

I’ve got two questions to answer today, both from Melanie at Pink Lemon Twist. Let me take a moment also to say that Melanie does some beautiful work, and I’m particularly a fan of her lace designs. Besides, she and I share the delight of having taken Darth Vader places on Halloween; surely this means something, though I’m not sure what.

Anyway, Melanie’s done some wonderful lace patterns that I like quite a bit, and I’m very much an admirer of her stuff; and her Hanami shawl, one which I’ve read about on her blog as she worked on it, is the first pattern I’ve purchased in at least a year.

Question the first: have I ever considered getting a custom wheel built for me?

Indeed I have! I’ve dithered endlessly on the subject as well. Some years ago, I told my father that I had decided to start spinning on a wheel and see if I liked it (as opposed to only using spindles, and viewing wheels as “cheating,” which I did when I was a kid).

“Hrmmm,” he said. “Well, if you’re going to do that, you should talk to my friend Alden Amos and have him build you something.” I looked around briefly, discovered that Mr. Amos’ wheels were not cheap and came with a wait measured in years and would take up a lot of space in the very very small California tract house where we lived at the time, and like any rotten kid, totally ignored my father’s advice. Then I dithered and dithered even further about whether or not I, in fact, wanted to get a spinning wheel at all.

While I was dithering, my better half gave me an Ashford Kiwi for Christmas. Within two weeks, it was clear to me that I did, in fact, want to be spinning on a wheel, and within three weeks it was clear to everyone that the Kiwi was not enough wheel to keep up with me, and I was going to need more wheel power. The net result of that was that I performed exhaustive research into what wheels I could get now, at whatever price, that would fit my lifestyle and have the broadest range of capabilities, and by the first week in February I’d bought a Majacraft Suzie Pro.

That Suzie has stood me in very, very good stead for several years now, and has been extended in just about every imaginable way. Indeed, the wheel has without exaggeration spun enough yarn for me to string from here to the Majacraft factory in New Zealand and back… loosely. In 3-ply at least. The long way to New Zealand. There’s nothing I haven’t spun on that wheel, either. It’s a very, very versatile workhorse of a wheel.

I’ve also acquired a number of other wheels, numerous of them quite exceptional, such as my Journey Wheel. I’ve spun on practically every wheel I run across at a shop, show, event, you name it. I’ve read up on wheel history and obscure wheel designs and theorized about what I wanted and how it could be done. I’ve discussed wheel mechanics and my wants and needs with anybody and everybody with whom I ever discuss the subject of wheels. I’ve made up totally fictional wheels with capabilities that border on the absurd.

But even so, no matter what, every wheel has its limitations. When I get to spinning fine and high-twist, alas, none of my flyer wheels ever seem to be quite fast enough, quiet enough, and so forth. Plying super-fine high twist yarns, I am forever yearning for my parents’ great wheel, except I want it to use bobbins and work while I’m sitting on my butt, too, of course. And my Roberta is too noisy at high speeds. And for spinning fine, it’s bobbin lead single drive. Oh, the list just goes on and on.

So finally I came to a point where I had to say to myself, “Self, you really do need to just have someone build you something.” I thought a lot about who. There are some fabulous custom wheels out there and some fabulous wheelbuilders… and finally it dawned on me that, you know, if I had taken my father’s advice years ago, and just gone and talked to Alden Amos, instead of saying “Well it’s expensive, and there’s a long wait…” I’d have an Alden Amos wheel by now. What’s more, talking to lots of people about it over the years, one of the things I’ve heard about him is that he’s told people “That’s not what you want. This is what you want.” Upon reflection, I realized that this is exactly what I need: someone to whom I can lay out all my absurd wants, who’s able to say “You may think this is what you want, but here’s what you really need,” and then build it.

So, presently, I’m going through Alden and Stephenie’s wheel and spinning questionnaires, evaluating my entire spinning lifestyle, and asking them to Solve My Problem(tm). No more dithering; I could dither about this forever.

Another thing I have to confess about the custom wheel situation: the same deeply ingrained, Chinchero-bred arrogance that caused me to say “I don’t need anything but a stick to do high-quality spinning, forget all this fancy equipment,” causes me to have a knee-jerk tendency to say “I really don’t require super-high-end equipment in order to do really good work!” Well, maybe I don’t; but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t use it and I wouldn’t like it and there’s no reason whatsoever for me to want it.

So, anyway, here I am in the throes of the custom wheel question!

Second question: What do you spin when you just spin?

Iā€™m not a big fan of knits using bulky yarns either, but I was wondering, what weight yarn do you find yourself using the most? I realize that you (like most of us) probably have a range, but is there a default weight you spin to when you are just spinning for fun? –Melanie

This actually falls right in with the questionnaires about my spinning that I’m working on for the custom wheel. To some extent it depends on the specific fiber; but the bottom line is that I spin fine when I just spin for fun. “Fine” in this case means a laceweight 2-ply, fingering to sock weight 3-ply, depending on the fiber and the prep. All of those fine yarns a couple of entries back, ranging from 40 wpi to 52 wpi in 2-ply, were comfort spinning (though on the thin side).

But I have moods… and I also really really try to make myself shake things up a bit now and again. Last fall, I had a 2-week boucle binge, which combined very fine silk singles for binders, with a thick-and-thin wool/silk single, where the thin parts were about 15 wpi and the fat parts were about 8.

But, okay, let’s force me to nail this down here. As evidenced by what knitting needles I have the most of, I think I mostly seem to randomly churn out 2-ply and 3-ply yarns that would get knit up on size 3 needles. And I actually think part of this is equipment related; if I had a faster wheel I’d probably go finer. On a spindle, I reflexively tend to yarn for Peruvian weaving, at 50-60 wpi in 2-ply.

The absolute bar none largest needle project I have going right now is for size 6 needles. The green sweater I think’ll be size 7 needles:

That’s thicker than I usually spin just to spin. So, I dunno, I guess 15-30 wpi in 2-ply is probably my default range on a wheel. And that’s actually one of the reasons I really wanted the sock machine, was to eat all the smallish quantities of rather random yarn in not-fast-project grists.

I generally don’t sell anything finer than sock yarn; it spends too long sitting around waiting for a lace knitter to want it, a lot of weavers don’t spin and have misconceptions about handspun yarn and weaving, thread crochet folks don’t think of using handspun yarn mostly, and none of it’s cheap. I’d love to sell handspun lace yarns, but it wouldn’t be cheap to do so, certainly not compared to the commercial options out there.

But yeah, I guess I like laceweight yarn and sock yarn as a default. I think, too, that I feel like yarns of that ilk have strong “turn into something magically” potential when marinating in the stash.

More New Sock Blends!

Well, as February winds down, I’ve got a final round of sock blends for sale, with a last chance at my February specials featuring free shipping on orders of $25 or more, free shipping +5% off $50 or more, and free shipping plus 10% off orders of $100 or more.

Where are they, you ask? Just follow this link to my eBay storefront, where you can search for all sorts of things. A sampling from this run…

This batch features a few tweed blends, where flashes of bombyx silk are left intact to create a very visible effect when you spin them up, and some blends include a really delectable natural brown Blue Faced Leicester in them as well.

And if you let me know you’re coming from my blog, you’ll also receive a surprise gift with your purchase.

Can You Offer Any Advice About Spinning Thicker Yarn?

First of all, spinning thick and consistent is quite difficult to do! If you want thick, consistent, and lofty, this is potentially one of the most technically challenging yarns to produce reliably as a single-ply yarn. If you take millspun commercial yarns which appear to be this, and deconstruct them carefully, you can often discover that they are in fact plied yarns, or in some cases, mildly felted pencil roving that hasn’t exactly been drafted and spun.

Paula Simmons’ book “Spinning for Softness and Speed” goes into a lot of detail about light, lofty yarns. I highly recommend it for anybody interested in spinning that sort of yarn. I understand you can order it directly from her here:


The easiest way to get a thick and consistent single ply yarn is to predraft to roughly the thickness that you want, and then simply add twist. However, this generally produces a fairly dense yarn without a ton of loft, and is rather slow going. The “right way,” so to speak, is to master woolen prep, make rolags with hand cards, and spin one-handed long draw… and this will still have some variability in thickness! There are many things in between these two ends of the spectrum. From commercial top, you can get a pretty good lofty single by spinning from the fold, quickly (as in drafting quickly and using a light takeup on your wheel and practically flinging the yarn at the orifice).

The most reliable way to get a consistent and predictable bulky yarn is to spin singles which are consistent, and ply them, using a fiber that tends to want to bulk up (Falkland wool comes to mind, and merino doesn’t do too badly and is easier to find). In general, not considering the question of finishing or washing your yarn and how the fiber behaves, a 2-ply isn’t quite 2x as thick as a single, and a 3-ply is a little more than 3x as thick — yep, the 3-ply structure actually behaves differently from the 2-ply structure, and adds more bulk. Were you to spin the fattest singles you can, and then ply them into a true 3-ply yarn (not navajo plied), you would see very surprising bulk from them, as well as wear properties superior to what you would get from a singles yarn.

You can also do a cabled yarn; the easiest way to describe that is to say that you spin singles, and ply 2 together; then you ply 2 of those plied yarns together again, in the direction in which you originally spun the yarn. You have a plied yarn within a plied yarn! Cabled yarns are very stable and even, almost no matter what you started out with; a thick-and-thin slubby single, plied 2-ply and then plied again cable, will be much more consistent than you’d think.

One easy way to spin a cabled yarn would be to use the center-pull ball method (or similar ply-from-both-ends technique such as the Andean plying bracelet). Ply once, then wind another center-pull ball, and ply that in turn from both ends.

Lastly, when spinning a thick yarn especially, prep matters — even more than it does when you’re spinning fine. When you spin fine, you do a lot more drafting and you can correct for a lot of things in the course of that; and you have more twist in the yarn as well. There are just more places that’ll be forgiving of problems in prep — when you’re spinning a thick and lofty yarn, your prep has to be spot on, or you’ll find unevenness happens very quickly and there’s virtually nothing you can do to correct it once it’s in there (or at least, it’s quite challenging by comparison to fixing such problems in finer yarn).

Personally, I like to work at being able to spin practically anything imaginable; but for practical reasons, extremely thick and lofty singles are not always as good a choice as a plied yarn of a similar thickness, though of course, it depends on your application. As a matter of my own opinion, I am not a huge fan of extremely dense thick yarns; I don’t like the hand or the drape of fabrics made from such yarns (though they have their places to be sure).

Some Recent Spinnings…

February has been an incredibly long month. I know, it’s not even over! But yet, it’s lasted a good 8 years. It has only been, for instance, about 5 weeks since I had my wisdom teeth out, and 6 weeks since the dental implant went in; yet those seem like they were years ago.

And I feel as if I’ve gotten nothing done. So I’m posting a little light yarn porn.

Cashmere/Tussah Silk 2-Ply, 670 yards (640 m), ~2 oz (56 g); 5,425 ypp; 45 wpi

Merino/Tussah Silk 2-ply, 765 yards and 1 ounce; appx 6100 ypp

2-ply Optim, 400 yards / 1 ounce; 6400 ypp, 52 wpi

See that bobbin? That bobbin is smoked. The bushing on the grooved end is just worn to uselessness. I need a new bushing. This bobbin’s benched for being a whiny, clattery, noisy poorly-behaved bobbin that’s annoying me with its constant yammering. Grrr.

Edited to add: The bobbin in question is a Majacraft lace bobbin, and it’s got a lot of miles on it; I mean if you were to unwind the yarn spun on it — assuming you had it all on a bobbin to do this — it’d probably cross the Atlantic. Not counting anything I’ve plied on it. And I’ll note Majacraft has plainly seen me coming; the bushings are replaceable.

2-ply merino/tencel, 650 yards, 2 ounces / 5200 ypp

This one I’ve actually wound onto a pirn, and…

I guess I’m going to do some lace knitting with it. But I decided to use the size 0 circulars because I have the longest ones of those, and because my size 000 circular needle is hiding, and because my size 0000 needles are double points, and besides, if I’m going to knit anything that size I think I’d better do it outside in the summer in full daylight, or something.

And of course, what’s the net result of all this? A big pile (okay, not so big, but lots of yards) of yarn so fine I don’t know what I’m going to do with it, because with the space-dyeing and whatnot it’s not really what I like to weave with in general. I guess I’ll knit and crochet lace. Fine. I’m sure I’ll think of something. It was all comfort spinning anyway.

The other net result is I’m crabby at all my wheels for being too slow, and too noisy when up to maximum speed.

Well, I guess there’s one more net result, and that is that I think I could really enjoy weaving with merino/tencel, and maybe with Optim, and these could definitely be spun with relative ease, on a wheel, to a grist I’d like to weave with. So that’s something.

How Do You Usually Price Handspun Yarn?

The question of how to price handspun yarn is coming up again on the various spinning mailing lists, so I’m taking an opportunity to repost my standard thoughts on pricing methodologies here.

The question of pricing, and discussing it, is a challenging one in some respects. There are numerous philosophies, and there are people who want to talk about them and people who don’t. With handcrafted goods, professionals sometimes find themselves competing with hobbyists, who have other means of support and aren’t looking to earn a living from selling their wares, enabling them to charge lower prices. This sometimes means the bottom falls out of a certain market, removing a professional’s livelihood, and a hobbyist’s lack of sensitivity to this can make professionals less willing to discuss the subject publicly.

Most hobbyists, and some professionals who are just starting out, are not setting out callously and with evil intent to undercut people who are looking to make a living; but they don’t know how to price things yet, they don’t know what the market will bear, and they often undervalue their work… or sometimes, overvalue it, though this is less common and tends to be limited to specific, trendy products.

Professionals, too, sometimes find themselves unenthused about helping hobbyists bring products to market because of the question of quality. In some — though categorically not all — cases, hobbyist wares are not as well-made as professional wares, and some professionals worry that simply having them on the market as hand-produced goods may have an overall negative effect on public perception of how good those products are on the whole. With the fiber arts this can be a particular sticking point, because it may require a trained eye in order to detect the difference.

Still more professionals flatly feel that they’ve spent years working on coming up with ways to turn a profit doing what they do, and put lots of work into it, and that’s not information they’re going to give away just because someone thinks they might be interested in it.

So, when asking for advice on pricing handspun yarn or handwoven, handknit, hand-crocheted items, be aware that you may be jumping into heated debate, whatever your scenario, whatever your expertise level, and whatever your goals.

For me it is essential to have and use a firm model, and to track what I do. I am also philosophically opposed — very opposed — to underpricing handmade fiber goods, as I feel that contributes to an overall cultural devaluation of textiles. So, I urge anybody getting into the selling game to talk not only to folks selling yarn or fiber, but folks selling handmade goods of all varieties, like furniture, pottery, wrought iron, you name it. Although the market has the final say, suppliers of goods on the market set the starting point.

People new to selling their wares would be well advised to look closely at the specific market which they’re entering, and consider where they’ll fit in it and how they’ll affect it, as there is a strong likelihood that this will have a great impact on their relationships with their peers and colleagues.

Abby’s Pricing Theory

There are two different questions here for me: how I put it up if I’m going to sell it, and how I price it. My pricing is based on cost of materials, time to produce, and “operating overhead” so to speak. By and large this is a pricing methodology that I learned as a child, with my friends selling woven items to tourists in Peru. There’s another angle on it, which involves figuring out what the market is, what’s selling at what price, and producing to meet that demand, but that’s a separate question.

It’s my belief that people need to price to pay textile producers a living wage, end of story. If I determine the market won’t pay what I’d need to make on a given object to earn a living wage for producing it, I don’t sell it. In my opinion, no independent producer of goods can really afford to price himself or herself out of a living wage.

Purely hypothetical scenario:

First, I want to stress that these scenarios use fictional numbers, and are intended to help you think about your baseline cost for producing a yarn; this does not include your cost for selling that yarn. I don’t want to tell you how to price your yarn, give the exact dollar amounts that I use, or tell you how to run a business; but I do want to provide you with food for thought about the cost of production alone. These examples also do not include more complicated overhead costs such as the cost of space in which to produce the goods; these are simply starting point examples. Also not included in the model described here are: how to handle unexpected losses from theft or damage, insurance, bookkeeping time, consulting time, project management costs, development costs, market research, and many more things that are very important for a businessperson to think about.

What I’m trying to get at here is this: Don’t sell your handspun yarn for less than it costs you to produce it. Even if you don’t make a business of this in earnest, if you do make a habit of selling your goods for below cost, you’re likely to have a negative effect on the market for such goods on the whole.

Anyway, you can use this formula to determine your baseline cost and break-even point for production, regardless of what you’re producing. It doesn’t matter what the numbers are in the example; substitute your own, to determine your cost, then base your pricing on your cost.

Let’s say I have a fiber that costs $10 a pound. I have equipment that would cost $1000 to replace. I want to pay my spinner (me) $10 an hour. I can produce 400 yards of single-ply yarn from 6 ounces of fiber, in an average hour. I expect the lifespan of my equipment to be 4000 hours until service or replacement is required. In addition, it takes up to 10 minutes per skein of 100 yards to measure, wash, label, etc, so let’s factor that in, but leave it as a separate item in case someday down the road we’re employing a put-up person who doesn’t have to be a skilled spinner, who makes a different wage.

Round numbers (everything up to the nearest 10 cents)

  • Materials cost for a 100-yard/1.5 oz skein: $1
  • Labor cost for spinning: 15 minutes at $10/hr = $2.50
  • Labor cost for finish and put-up: 10 minutes at $10/hr = $1.80
  • Equipment cost: $0.10

My break-even is $5.40 a 100-yard skein, in this case.

Second Purely Fictional Scenario

In this case, my raw material costs $20 a pound and I can produce 200 yards of it in an hour, not including put-up and packaging. Skeining, measuring, washing, and labeling will be done by a different employee earning $8 an hour. Everything else stays the same.

  • Materials cost for a 100-yard/1.5 oz skein: $2
  • Labor cost for spinning: 30 minutes at $10/hour = $5.00
  • Labor cost for put-up: 10 minutes at $8/hour = $1.35
  • Equipment cost: $0.15

Break-even here is $8.50.

If I want to give away the labor, or the materials, I can adjust accordingly. The same goes for pricing a job where I don’t have to pay for the fiber, but I do require time, and will put wear and tear on my equipment.

Please note that this is the break-even point; the point at which I am not operating at a loss on simply producing the yarn. This is the point below which I’m actually paying money to sell the yarn, if I sell it at such a price. This is not my final sales price if I’m bringing the product to market, storing it, advertising it, shipping it, and so forth; this is the point below which, if someone else is going to absorb all those costs, I cannot afford to sell the product. It’s a rock bottom wholesale price.

I think I’m somewhat unusual in my pricing because I do include equipment maintenance or replacement cost, something I generally don’t see people do. But you’re out of business without the gear and it does take a beating if you do production work! I also think that generally, folks don’t view it as “I have to pay my spinner (me)” — but I was raised by often self-employed parents and have had it drilled into me to consider my time payable by the operation, whatever it is. šŸ˜‰

As far as put-up: by default, I pull things off the bobbin and skein them with my counting skeiner, so I know how many yards there are. If something is for general sale, I will leave it in a skein; if it’s part of a special order or something where someone requests, I can put it up in center-pull balls (but I don’t do that in general). For my own storage purposes, I skein, wash, dry, then either store if I don’t have a likely immediate (in a couple of months) use in sight, or put it in balls if I do. Size of skeins: I have found that in general, 100-yard skeins, measured by yards, of varying weight, are more popular than by-weight skeins. Think about it: as a yarn user, you are more likely to care how many yards than how many ounces.

So, I put up by the yardage, and charge based on production cost given materials, time, and equipment. Then, as a retailer, I have to figure my retail costs into the equation as well, in order to calculate my markup, profit margin, and so forth — which I figure separately from the baseline production costs.

What Difference Does Drive Wheel Size Make?

Step 1 is the drive ratios. What this refers to is the difference in size between the drive wheel and the driven object — the whorl, which in turn will be moving the spindle (on a spindle wheel such as a charkha or great wheel), the bobbin or flyer (on a single drive wheel), or both bobbin and flyer (on a double drive wheel).

You can measure this most easily by measuring the circumference. Take a piece of string, and wrap it one time around the drive wheel in the same spot where the drive band goes. However long that string is, that’s the circumference for the drive wheel. Now, do the same with the whorl. Let’s suppose that your drive wheel is 15″ around, and the whorl is 5″ around. To calculate the ratio, you divide the number for the drive wheel by the number for the driven object (the whorl). This gets you a 3:1 ratio — the drive wheel is 3 times the size of the whorl. What this means is that for every one time the drive wheel goes all the way around, the whorl is going to make 3 revolutions.

Now, let’s say you have a 20″ drive wheel, and 5″ whorl. That’s a 4:1 ratio, which means every time the drive wheel goes around once, the whorl (and therefore the spindle, flyer, or bobbin) is going to go around 4 times.

You could also get this same effect by keeping your 15″ circumference drive wheel, and going from a 5″ circumference whorl to one that measures 3.75″ in circumference (1/4 of 15″). This is still a ratio of 4:1, though the sizes of the drive wheel and driven object are different from the previous example.

But, let’s say you have that 15″ circumference drive wheel, and what you really want is a 30:1 ratio. At this point, you need a whorl that is half an inch around — very small. What’s wrong with that? The answer is traction — your drive band needs to be able to get a good enough grip on the whorl to cause it to turn, including turning whatever is on the end of it. Mechanically speaking, when your driven object gets smaller, the first thing you notice is it being harder to make it move, and the next thing you notice is that it loses traction and starts to slip — it just can’t get hold of the whorl and make it go.

It’s also harder, from a manufacturing standpoint, to make something really tiny and exact and still durable.

So now let’s say that you move up to a drive wheel that’s 30″ in circumference; now to get a 30:1 ratio, you need a 1″ circumference whorl. There is a lot more room for grip on that! A high ratio setup works more efficiently with larger pulleys (wheels and whorls and whatnot) because of an assortment of traction issues.

There are other factors in play as well. For example, distance between the drive wheel and the whorl changes how much contact the drive band has on the whorl, as does how the drive band is set up. In a double drive system, the drive band is doing double duty, driving both the flyer and the bobbin (just at different rates). There’s more drive band, and more driven objects, and thus more opportunity for slippage and loss of traction — so double drive systems are easier to make work well with larger drive wheels and whorls.

Another factor is that a larger wheel (or a heavier one) will have greater momentum. This means that once you get it going, it’s better able to keep going with less effort, than something smaller and lighter.

So, what does this mean in practice?

1. It’s easier to build a high-ratio wheel with a larger drive wheel.

Therefore, it’s more likely that wheels suited to spinning fast (at high ratios) will have larger drive wheels, while wheels suited to spinning slow (at low ratios) will have smaller ones. A higher speed at the flyer gives you more twist faster; a lower speed gives you less. The thinner your yarn, the more twist it can hold, and the fatter your yarn, the less. So for spinning a very fine yarn, you want high ratios, and for spinning fat yarn, you want lower ones.

2. A wheel with a larger drive wheel will most likely have superior momentum.

This means that once you get it going, it’s going to be easier to keep it going. You’ll get less tired treadling it.

3. A wheel with a larger drive wheel may have limitations when it comes to low ratios.

If you have that 30″ drive wheel and you want a 3:1 ratio, you need a 10″ whorl. Will that fit in your flyer assembly area?

The most common modern wheels are multi-taskers, which do very well for a broad spectrum of types of spinning. They will commonly have drive wheels with diameters from 13″ to 24″, which translates to circumferences between 40″ and 75″ roughly speaking. These wheels can fit in a good range of spaces, and commonly feature multiple ratios between 5:1 and 20:1, making them suited for spinning a wide range of fibers in a variety of ways. Where these wheels fall short is when it comes to being tuned for specific purposes that are at the extremes of the spectrum: super duper thick yarn, or mega ultra fine yarn (or very short stapled fibers that need a lot of twist fast).

Antique “Production” wheels commonly had much larger drive wheels, being suited to producing very large amounts of very fine yarn as fast as a true production spinner could draft. Great wheels, with drive wheels that can be 48″ in diameter (so 4 feet across and over 12 feet all the way around!) are ideal for spinning woolen yarns very very quickly, though the spinner must be able to keep up, of course. Production flyer wheels often have 36″ drive wheels (3 feet across, 9.5 feet all the way around the rim). You’ll also often see such wheels have seemingly small bobbin capacities — they’re for spinning fine yarn for weaving, mainly. You would still pack quite a bit of yardage of fine yarn onto those wheels!

So, when you’re shopping for a wheel, consider what type of yarn you want to spin with it. If you know for a fact you want to spin a lot of fine yarn quickly, you want a big-drive-wheel kind of wheel; if you know you want to churn out bulky low-twist yarn, you want something with a really small drive wheel. If you’re interested in a variety of options that don’t go to such extremes, then a midrange size for a drive wheel is probably a good one for you.

This is also a reason why many veteran spinners have more than one wheel: it is difficult to have only one wheel fill every spinning need. Though many modern wheels can fill most, spinners with work that falls to one end of the spectrum or the other may find that they have a wheel on which they like to do most of their very fine spinning, most of their very bulky spinning, and a wheel that’s good for everything in between.

Do you know anything about Andean chullu knitting?

I mentioned chullu knitting on the spin-list, and was asked for a little more information. Here’s my reply, and a repost of something from 2005 about learning to do it, with pictures.

The Question and Reply

I’d like to know more about the Chullus you mentioned. Do you know how they are “knitted differently”?

In fact I do. šŸ˜‰ The basics are that they’re stranded colourwork with 3 and sometimes 4 strands carried and secured with sort of a braid methodology between stitches; the “working side” that you look at is the purl side, and all the work is purled. All the strands are carried around the neck and tensioned that way. I’m told it’s similar to an old Arabic knitting technique, and it’s believed to have made its way to Peru via the Spanish at the time of conquest. They are knitted bottom-up, starting with a rather complicated braided cast-on and typically a zig-zag pointed edging. Traditional patterns are the weaving patterns, but worked horizontally rather than vertically and sometimes with some variations as well.

Are those the “bowler” type hats?

They’re the pointed earflap hats. The form factor is very popular and is often used in hats that are knitted via more European means, but the traditional Andean chullu (sometimes spelled chullo) is a form of knitting that came very close to disappearing in most regions. It’s a significantly steeper learning curve than other forms of knitting, and demands weaverly yarn-management hand knowledge in order to perform with any reasonable rate of speed. A skilled chullu knitter can make on in about 2-3 nights, or one really really long day. They’re knit with the smallest metal needles that can be found (the yarn is small), and the needles are often made from bicycle spokes.

Really interested in the knitting technique, and more about the tightly spun yarn that is used to make them.

The yarn is simply Andean weaving yarn. It’s a 2-ply yarn, spun and plied very very tightly; so tightly that European and US textile traditions view it as hopelessly overspun, both in the spin and the ply. When I learned about it a couple of years ago, we weren’t able on short notice to find small enough needles to work with my stash of Peruvian weaving yarn, so my example was done on size 2 needles with some baby yarn or another that I had lying around.

Part 1

Years and years and years ago, before kindergarten and all, before I spoke Spanish or Quechua, I made friends with a girl — or she made friends with me — even though at the time, we had no language in common. Because when you’re a kid, you don’t need that, and it comes eventually. She was a little older than me and she could talk me into anything. We got older and learned lots of things together, competing with each other to show off our spinning and weaving skills, chasing her family’s sheep around when taking them out to pasture, walking several km to school when it was schooltime… and then I’d go back to the US, and have no friends to play with and no yarn stuff competition with my peers and all that. Then I’d go back to Peru again and there would be my friend, just like before, and we’d pick right up where we left off. I remember being in 3rd grade and thinking about my friend and saying that it was like we were part of the same pattern, except she was the one in Peru and I was the one from the US and so someday, it was going to be nice to have her come where I lived and that would make everything balance out right. She was a lot more competent and accomplished than I was, and quicker, and stronger, and faster, and she kicked my butt at pretty much everything. I had all kinds of chances and opportunities and stuff that she didn’t — just by chance, and all, because I happened to have been born in the US and whatnot.

We got older and stuff, and somewhat more serious and somber in our competitiveness. Eventually we were teenage peers. She could still talk me into anything. I was an inch taller than her. She was way better at math and could do more things at one time than I could. When the woman who was like a grandmother to me died of pneumonia and we walked to her burial in a cold, steady rain, we shared her heavy shawl and I sobbed on her shoulder and she caught me when I slipped and almost fell into the graveyard mud. She had a ewe that bled to death lambing out on a terrace, and we took turns carrying the bloody little lamb back to her house and tried to save him, but he eventually died anyway. Her mother and my mother have the same name. She was as much a daddy’s girl as I was. But she worked harder and did more things than me, and she did them better. I knew we’d be friends forever and she’d always edge me out on pretty much everything. I never grudged her that, or envied her, or anything. She deserved everything in the world and she worked for it all.

But, one day back in the US, I learned she had just died of typhoid at seventeen. In some respects I still haven’t come to grips with the fact that she died and I lived. In my heart of hearts I think I still feel like it’s the most unfair thing I have ever personally been party to in any way. Oh, there’s other stuff that’s up there or tops it for heartbreak, but it’s not as unfair as her dying so young. Her death is the one and only thing I’ve never been able to think about and say “Yeah, but you know, tragedies happen and life isn’t fair, just deal.” I mean I deal, and always have, but I still think, UNFAIR.

My Peruvian godmother once told me that, so long as you can in any way cry a tear for a person who’s dead and gone, you owe that person a debt. It took me a while to think of what debt I might owe my dead friend Angelica and eventually I concluded that, among many other things, I owed it to her to live a worthy life. Because, you see, I got to keep mine and she didn’t. And if it would have been me in her shoes… well it couldn’t have been, really, because white American girls from Ivy League families don’t die of dehydration while recovering from typhoid in a third-world hospital. She even might not have died if she’d gotten sick while we were there. For my whole adult life I have lived with that, without ever a week going by but that I think of her, and wonder what she’d be doing if she were still alive.

Well, time passes. She had a little sister named Carolina. I never knew Carolina well — she was several years younger, and she didn’t spend so much time running around with the kids our age. She was a kid sister, just like I had. But you know… as time passes and people grow up, it’s funny. She looks a lot like her older sister looked, but she’s a bit shorter. She’s doing a lot of the stuff I think her big sister would have done. And right now, she’s in the US and I get to have her stay with me for a few days… like I always thought her sister someday would do. I’m so glad she can come hang out with me and my family and know what my life here is like. She is here in the US studying English and doing some lectures and demonstrations about weaving, for CTTC.

I never learned how to START a chullu, the Peruvian hat, only how to continue one once started, and *that* was 25 years ago. So, since Carolina was going to be working on hers last night I pleaded with her to show me how to start one. And it’s pesky! Which is why you don’t have an 8-year-old start it! šŸ˜‰ I was never anywhere near as interested in knitting as weaving, so… I can’t say I tried very hard to learn it before, either. But now, I must achieve victory over starting the chullu! Even if this one is a small example fella and not a real one.

Part 2

More work on the chullu knitting last night — which is actually a coin purse type object, so as to be small.


Cutij Kh’eswa

Inside. See? No floats at all, up to 3 colours carried at a time, this tactic is the real meat of this style of knitting… except, so’s the cast-on. And understanding Andean patterns… and knowing how to work with yarn under tension and… well anyway. My mission now is to increase sufficiently that I can do Jakaku Sisan. And that will probably be coin purse sized, so that’ll probably get followed by another cutij-kh’eswa and raki-raki, if I know anything at all about the RULES.

Also, again I vow, the next one of these I make is not going to be sport weight floppy superwash wool. No. It will be high-twist 2-ply handspun.

The finished pouch!

Shown with small pockets (sort of like glove fingers) which will be obscured by the fringe when that’s done being applied.

Totally Unrelated

And also, this being the date that it is… happy birthday, Ed, you’d have been 62 and I still miss you every day and extra on your birthday.

The Discourse Portion: replies to comments

First, the short answers…

1. Do you teach fiber arts?

I’m just gearing up to do so, actually. Stay tuned to this blog for more information about that, or you can drop me an email!

2. Are you related to Ed Franquemont? Did he teach you to weave and spin and stuff?

Yes, Ed was my father. Did he teach me the fiber arts stuff that he used to teach in classes? Hrmmm, a trickier question. With respect to the Andean textile production stuff, we had many of the same teachers, only I was a child learning with the other kids, and he was a grownup who didn’t know how to do a lot of that stuff. There were things I learned and taught him (like fingerloop braiding, which the kids did but the grownups didn’t bother with), and vice versa (like English textile terminology, and how to run a workshop or class). And just like my father did, I learned tons and tons of things from my mother, Christine Franquemont, and from her mother and her aunts. My father and I engaged in a lifelong game of textile oneupmanship of sorts: “Aha, look, turns out knitting is fun!” vs. “So what do you know about the history of Irish crochet?” and “Look, I’m spinning novelty yarn, have you ever tried to do a real boucle?” vs. “Hey, do you know about devoré?” I’m told there’s no mistaking me for anyone but his daughter; sometimes I point out there could probably be no mistaking him for anyone but the man who’d have raised me. I’ll always miss him.

3. Is the widest part of the cop on that spindle really wider than the whorl?

Referring to this post. And yes, it is; when winding a cop on a low whorl spindle, I pretty much always wind one that is wider than the whorl; it’s a normal Andean spinning thing, and the challenges involved in doing that on a top whorl spindle is one of my dissatisfactions with the top whorl in general, so it’s something I’m trying to work around.

4. Do you have some links to traditional Andean weaving stuff?

I very much recommend checking out The Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco, about which I’ll really need to write a longer piece one of these days.

A Swatch, Some Comfort Spinning

Well, I finally managed to snap a few photos of the autoknitter swatch of that Crown Jewels colourway yarn:

Crown Jewels Sock
Crown Jewels Sock Blend

It’s really a challenge to catch a picture that shows both the colours true, and the sheen that the yarn has — it’s just plain the wrong time of year for good natural light. So these photos are truest for colour, but don’t do justice to the incredible sheen that the superwash/silk blends produce.

That aside, I did a little bit of fine spinning this week. I had a problem, a silly one: I had been leaving one of my two Majacraft lace bobbins tied up with some spun yarn on it from before we moved — since last January or February actually. That’s right: a year of sitting on the bobbin. Why? Because it was this 50/50 merino/cashmere blend that I knew I had another several ounces of somewhere, but it hasn’t turned up yet. So finally I just said “Aw, forget it,” and spun a roughly similar amount of plain ol’ merino to ply it with and clear the bobbin. Plus I bought another pair of lace bobbins so as to not engage in such stupidity again. So I figure with one ply merino and one ply merino/cashmere it’s a 75% merino/25% cashmere yarn. Amazingly, it ended up being just about an ounce — 28 grams. It’s 315 yards, 45 wpi (wraps per inch) in 2-ply form, and so about 5,000 ypp (yards per pound). And pretty much impossible to photograph, being white:

75% Merino / 25 % Cashmere 2-ply

And it seems I’m presently bingeing on the yarn that is screaming “Would you buy a macro lens already?” This is what I cleared off the lace bobbins to get to: a 2-ounce thing of Chasing Rainbows merino/tencel that I picked up at Stitches West last year. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there are those of you who call me an unrepentant enabler (and you’re probably right), but I’m in no way immune, and particularly to Nancy Finn’s work. She chooses exceptional fiber, and does some of they finest dye work around… and I have never, not once, walked away from a vendor selling her wares without purchasing some. Seriously, not once.

Chasing Rainbows Merino/Tencel, African Savannah, single on the bobbin

But I really feel no remorse about this whatsoever. Spinning her fibers is always incredibly enjoyable, and it was what I decided to treat myself to doing to balance out the lows in a rather long week — did I mention I caught a nice cold, I presume from extra time outside in the chill fixing that garage door?

Chasing Rainbows Merino/Tencel spun fine 2-ply

I split the entire length of the top as close to the center as I could, just eyeballing it; and then I spun it slowly end to end preserving as much of the colour separation as I could, one half to a bobbin. And if I’d had those two more lace bobbins I’d have rewound the singles onto them and plied directionally, but they weren’t here yet. It still came out nice, though…

2-ply merino/tencel

In the final analysis it made for 662 yards, and a 38 wpi 2-ply yarn, which is reasonably even for a little bit of comfort spinning, and with the colour shifts working out fairly nicely throughout the yarn. It’s just got a tremendous shine to it, and the drape is going to be stellar; crocheted lace, I think. But I’m undecided. And I even got lucky with a happenstance beam of sunlight pouring in and hitting the stairs today! I grabbed the skein as fast as I could to snap a few pictures of it.

Merino/Tencel 2-ply

More pictures and closeups and whatnot are here:

Abby’s Handspun Yarn: Fine Yarns

With the acquisition of some fine anti-static graphite powder, I think I’m going to be able to get the lace setup on the Suzie Pro a little bit slicker, and do some really fine yarn soon. But right now… well, right now, I’m going to do another one of those Chasing Rainbows merino/tencels.

Another Excellent Reason To Be A Spinner Nowadays

Yesterday, it snowed about 7 inches, which is the most snow young Edward has ever seen in his life. Unfortunately it’s also pretty cold; it was about 18 degrees at the warmest point in the day today, which is fortunately when I… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

I went out to shovel a few paths to key places: the walkway in front of the house, out from the garage door to where the trash cans live, and enough of the concrete pad in front of the main garage door to be able to pull the 4-wheel drive truck out should I feel like it. With that mission accomplished, I handed Edward the snowshovel at his request, and let him go to town playing with it. I had no major expectations that he’d accomplish anything meaningful; he’s just turned 9, this is about the fourth time in his life he’s seen snow at all, and it’s his second snow day ever, yesterday having been his first, so I figured what the heck. “When you’re done,” I told him, “please put the shovel in the garage, by the people door, not the big door; put it by the small door.”

“Sure, mom!” he said perkily, and I went inside. About 45 minutes elapsed, and then a totally snow-covered Edward came running to the back door. “You go in the front door, or the garage door,” I told him, “and all your wet stuff comes off immediately.”

“Okay, mom,” he said, “But I came to tell you that there is a problem.”

“What problem?” I asked him. “Hey, did you put the shovel away?”

“That’s what I’m trying to tell you,” he said. “I did put the shovel in the garage, but I couldn’t get the door closed.”

“Fine, fine,” I said, “just go to the front door and get out of your snowy clothes and I’ll take care of the door.” I headed to the attached garage and went out; but the people door, and the car door, were closed. But then I didn’t see the shovel. I went back in the house. “Edward,” I asked, “Where did you put the shovel?”

“In the garage, by the people door,” he said.

“I don’t see it there,” I told him.

“The small garage, mom, like you said, and I tried, I really really tried to close the door but I can’t make it close, and I’m really sorry, and…”

Of course. The small garage. The detached garage in which the seasonal stuff that isn’t out at this time of year lives. I went to take a look.

The lad had, apparently, opened the big garage door, and been unable to get it to close. Looking at it, it seemed like there might be snow that had drifted across the infrared sensor for the door, the thing that keeps it from closing if there’s an object there. Always check the physical layer first, I reminded myself, and shoveled that clear. I didn’t see anything obvious that would be at issue, so I walked over and slapped the “lower door” button. The door came down halfway, stopped, and rose back up as if obstructed.

“Huh,” I said, and went to move the little cable pull by the door’s mechanism that says “PULL THIS DOWN FOR MANUAL OPERATION.” It wouldn’t pull, so I looked up, following the cable. And that’s when I saw the problem: a problem I have seen hundreds of times in my life, and solved stubbornly: the tangled bobbin.

When you're good, you stop fast before the tangle happens!

There are many kinds of tangled bobbin. I know most of them intimately. There are many causes and many ways this happens, and the solutions are mostly painstaking and slow if you fix them the right way. And since “the wrong way” involves things like slicing the yarn off the bobbin, and in this case the yarn was steel cable, well…

When you can take the bobbin off, you can fix it easy too

This was a clear case of “excess slack caused a too-loose wind-on which resulted in yarn going out the shaft on which the bobbin rests, wrapping loosely, and tangling; and then when the auto-reverse kicked in and went the other way… and then when Edward pressed the “close” button repeatedly… and then when I pressed it the one time… sigh. I set up the stepladder, climbed up, jiggled the door enough to create a little bit of slack so I could pull the motor disengaging red PULL HERE FOR MANUAL OPERATION tab; and when that finally could be pulled enough, I secured it in place. Carefully, slowly, gently — well, as gently as you can when you’re talking about a wrist-thick bobbin with a 2-3 wpi cabled yarn made of steel on it — I lowered the door, unwinding the snarl around the shaft. With the garage door about a foot from the floor, and about 3 wraps on the bobbin, there was a really fabulous snag. There are grooves in the bobbin for this cable, in which the cable should wrap neatly as it takes up… and which it had jumped. Being what seemed to be 6 2-plies then plied as a cabled yarn, it was decidedly not interested in compressing, stretching, nudging, or any such tricks.

Tangled bobbin, yep

Had there but been a simple way to disengage the cable from the door, this problem would have been a trifle. There being no such simple solution, instead, it involved me going and finding a sufficiently large yarn needle (actually the handle of a steel file) and spending over an hour perched atop the stepladder (yes, on the part you’re not supposed to sit on) raising and lowering the door to get slack where I could, slipping wraps here and there, moving slack through the entire bobbin in various ways, and finally clearing all the tangles. I drove the deadbolt home, folded the stepladder, picked up the rogue snowshovel, and shoveled my way back to the house.

Fixed enough to get the door closed

The teenage neighbours aren’t home to bribe to snowblow the driveway. I gave in, and called a plow service. What the heck; this way there can be pizza for dinner tonight. The garage door guy can fix the slack problem in that cable; I’ve untangled the metal yarn in below-freezing weather and secured the garage tauntingly full of summer things. And I’m fairly pleased with myself for thinking, while up that ladder in the cold, “You know, this is a perfect time to take a crappy cameraphone picture,” only halfway through the detangling.

Truly, faced with not wanting to leave that garage door open and its contents exposed to the elements, knowing it’s getting later in the day and that it was unlikely that a garage door guy could be gotten there quickly, I really did think to myself, “Man, I’m glad I’m a fiber person who’s solved this problem countless times before, if typically under slightly less extreme conditions and with a smaller yarn needle.” So if you were wondering, why be a handspinner? Well, the answer is clearly “Just in case you ever need to fix a fouled bobbin.”