What Do I Need To Start Spinning?

Getting started with handspinning does not require a huge investment. Although there’s no reason you can’t spend as much as you like, and start right out with expensive equipment and materials, it’s not required at all. The next set of instructions is for making the cheapest, most basic spindles you can, for yourself.

At the most basic level, what you need a simple spindle, and some fiber. Simple spindles are even extremely easy to make! I make my quickie spindles by going to the hardware store, picking up some dowels, and then picking up some wooden drawer pulls. Then, I drill a hole through the center of the drawer pull, cut the dowel to 10-12 inches in length, stick it through the hole, sand any rough edges, and voila. This type of spindle most closely resembles the Andean pushka spindle, and is the type I’m using in my Drop Spindle Basics video.

Can’t, or don’t want to, drill a hole? Instead of a drawer pull, pick up some toy wheels from practically any craft supply store or section of a superstore, and follow these instructions, with or without the hook.

That’s it, seriously — that is all you absolutely need for equipment.

Some folks like to put hooks on their spindles — personally, I don’t. Low whorl spindles don’t need them, and indeed, I find hooks on low whorls to be counterproductive and slow me down. High whorl spindles do need them, or some other solution to getting the yarn secured to them safely. Thus, you might opt to pick up a few cup hooks on your hardware store run, as well.

In addition to the drawer pull and toy wheel spindles, there are CD spindles. Seriously — just take some CDs you don’t care about, find a stick (or dowel), and voila. I’ve made these with pencils and rubber bands, at random times to show people what spinning is. But if you want to be less improvisational about it, take a look at this Spin-Off article on making your own CD spindle.

If that wasn’t enough simple spindle making solutions, you can also make ’em using a clay whorl. You can use modeling clay, Fimo, fancy clay, any kind of clay you like. Make a ball of clay, flatten it into a disc, and stick your spindle shaft through it. Let it dry and voila.

Another quick improvised spindle option — which can be really beautiful — is to take a chopstick and a large, flat bead with a big hole in the middle. You can hold the bead whorl in place with a rubber grommet or some tiny hair rubber bands.

When you get right down to it, you don’t even really need to use anything other than a stick — but, spindles with whorls do perform better long-term than unwhorled sticks. However, you can also do things like simply take a wire coat hanger, cut out the bottom piece, use pliers to put a hook in it, and use that, simply by drafting out bits of fiber and twirling the hooky stick in your fingers. Numerous books recommend this as a very first starting tactic, to get a sense of drafting fiber.

Okay, so with that covered… then you need fiber, right? At the most basic level, it almost doesn’t matter what you use for fiber at the very start. I have made a few suggestions here, though, if you’re looking to shop for some. If someone has given you fiber, or you have your own, by all means, use it!

What’s more, you don’t even really need any equipment at all to prepare your fiber for spinning. You might like some, and eventually, you’ll doubtless find that you want some, if you plan to work from raw fiber (which is what we call fiber that’s just been sheared or harvested). Seriously — you can pick up, say, raw wool, and tug at it and draft it and twist it and get yarn. You don’t even have to wash it first (though you may well want to). One important caveat to mention for anybody working with raw animal fibers, though, is that unwashed animal fibers are liable to contain things like dung, and animal dung can contain bacteria which may be harmful to some people. If you are immunocompromised, or pregnant, or under doctor’s orders to avoid bacteria, you might rather start with washed animal fibers. It’s sort of like cleaning the litterbox or dealing with certain elements of livestock handling, and your individual situation may vary.

Be sure to check out what Andrea has to say about picking fiber by hand.

That said, you can get great mileage out of pet combs and brushes, for simple fleece preparation, but that’s another topic for another day.

Lastly, chances are you’ll want a reference. In a perfect world, the world which is best suited to you learning to spin really quickly and enjoyably, the reference you will have is an experienced spinner who wants to get you hooked on spinning, and can spend time with you in person. You can often find these at fiber guilds, fiber and yarn shops, and by asking around on mailing lists. Second to that are books (which will be the topic of another upcoming post, and generally can be found at the library though you may need to request specific titles) and the Internet (which you presumably already have started poking through, since you’re here!).

Well, there we have the most basic, low-cost things that you absolutely need to start spinning yarn. It doesn’t have to be a costly or high-maintenance proposition. You don’t have to take classes, buy fancy equipment, high-end fiber, or anything like that. You could get well on your way with $5-10.

On the other hand, let’s say you wanted to spend a little bit more money and a little less time. Let’s say you wanted to spend about $25. You’d be right on the mark for what a lot of people want to spend, and that’s why there are tons of kits aimed at that price point. However, lots of them are not so great. Here’s a list of a few mail-order learn to spin kits which I would recommend:

And that’s just a few.

Without a doubt, the best thing you can have to learn to spin with is a person who spins. Most spinners are eager to help people try it out! So eager, in fact, it’s common for them to give new spinners tools and fiber and all kinds of stuff! I know lots of experienced spinners who keep extra wheels around to lend out — not kidding! And if you’re in the continental USA, you probably have spinners within an hour or so of you. Check out the “getting started” link at the top for suggestions on finding them.

Batt Club: Update!

For those of you who have been wondering about Batt Club, and if there’ll be another, and what you have to do to get in, here’s a quick update.

First, I have decided to do Batt Club again for Winter 2007. Maybe I should have called it Fall 2007 — but perhaps, with another day promising to bring record high temperatures, I’m eager to feel wintry. Anyway, Winter 2007 will be October, November, and December. Existing Batt Club members have right of first renewal — if you’re in, and you want to renew, you get first crack during the pre-registration period (which is going on now). Current Batt Club members have all been sent email notifications — if you’re in Batt Club, and you have not received an email notification, please let me know!

Second, I really should have instituted a waiting list plan; if I’d been sure I was going to do another round, I probably would have! So many of you have emailed me wishing you’d gotten in, and it’s been heartbreaking to say I can’t. Indeed, I opened up additional groups beyond the initial ten that I expected to do… But there are 40 people, and that is literally as much as I can handle, and still remotely be able to meet other commitments and do other projects. So, anyway, I’m going to start the waiting list now, while pre-registration is going on for existing members. If you’d like to be added to the waiting list, please send me email (to abby, at abbysyarns.com, if that link isn’t clickable for you) and I’ll send you back a waiting list number. You’ll be added first come, first served; and you’ll be notified as slots become available during the pre-registration period. What’s more, your spot in line will be held for next time around too (Winter 2008, in January-February-March) — so even if you don’t get in this time, you’d be in line next time.

Then, once pre-registration is done, and once the wait list has been served, if there are spots remaining, I will announce it here. I can tell you that as it stands right now, we do have quite a few renewals, but we also have some cancellations and there will definitely be wait-list spots available (some are even available now).

UPDATE as of Sun Sep 2 10:10:57 PDT 2007: So far, there are 31 renewals confirmed, 9 pending, and 46 people on the waiting list. To get on the waiting list, email abby@abbysyarns.com.

Third, before you rush to sign up, there are some changes to Batt Club moving forward. The quantities of fiber stay the same, which is to say 4-8 ounces total depending on the blend (in other words, a cashmere blend costs more than a pure wool) and the retail value will always be around $45-50 plus shipping; you’ll always be saving about 25% over what you’d pay to buy the batts without the club membership. Batt Club fibers will still be a surprise, and I won’t tell you much about them before they start arriving in people’s hands. Everyone will still get the same shipment of the same fiber. However, the 3-month subscription costs slightly more than it did the first time around: the price has gone up from $90 for three months, to $110 for 3 months if you’re in the US and Canada. If you’re elsewhere, then chances are that I can ship to you, but I’d need to get your address and give you a custom shipping quote.

Fourth, Batt Club now comes with club benefits: 5% off all purchases from this site during your membership period, and free shipping from eBay during your membership as well. For folks pre-registering or wait-listing, your discount is active as soon as I receive your payment — so if you’re in for October, November and December, your discount could start as soon as, well, now. And lastly, Batt Club membership now comes with the option of signing up to be notified of pending First Dibs, before they’re even active as First Dibs — in other words, Batt Club members get an ongoing discount and first crack at all my new fibers.

Whew! I think that’s it — except to say, the photos all throughout this post are from current Batt Club members, and if you’d like to see more…

…cruise on over to the Flickr group and see what’s there.

So What’s Really The Right Fiber To Start With?

I’m hearing a lot of new spinners talking about what kind of wool fiber they’ve been told is the right thing to start out with, and then relating to that, what problems they’re having as they branch out to other types of wool. The more I read about the issues folks are encountering, the more I think a big stumbling block is actually not what kind of fiber it is, but what kind of preparation it is.

Let’s start by looking back at What are batts, top, roving and so forth? from December 2006. Armed with this information about types of preparation, you’re prepared to shop smarter if you have some idea what sort of yarn you’re interested in spinning.

But what if you just have no idea at all? In that case, I recommend stashing up with a range of practice fibers, and a good variety! Here’s a list I like to give brand new spinners (or spinners looking to stash up and expand horizons) to take with them to fiber shops and fiber festivals or fairs.

You don’t have to buy everything on it; if you’re looking for my absolute musts, they’d be the first 3 items. The others are all things I think can expand your horizons and help you develop preferences, and looking at them in person when you have a chance also helps you out with later mail-order shopping you might feel like doing.

  • 1-2 pounds of undyed medium wool — carded from a small mill if at all possible
  • 1-2 pounds of undyed commercial wool top of any variety
  • 2-4 ounces of tussah silk, dyed or undyed
  • 2-4 ounces of bombyx silk, dyed or undyed
  • 2-8 ounces of commercial wool/silk blend
  • 2-8 ounces of a handpainted commercial wool top
  • 2-8 ounces of a commercial blend of wool with a new man-made fiber such as tencel or soy silk
  • 1-4 ounces of cotton, any prep
  • 2-8 ounces of fiber in batts, if available
  • 2 oz to 1 lb of assorted fibers that just make you drool — whether you think you’re up to spinning them or not
  • a small assortment of new synthetics to try out — get them in small incremements. Sometimes you’ll find sampler packs.

Speaking of sampler packs, those are great. If you’re mail-ordering, look for some of the Louet sample packs, which contain 1-ounce samples of a number of their blends, and provide lots of learning opportunities.

So, you’re saying, but what if I’m picking only one fiber to start out with? Well, in that case, go with a medium wool in undyed form. Why undyed? For one thing, it’s likely to be cheaper and you’ll get more; and for another, sometimes the dyeing process can change how a fiber behaves a little, and this is especially true for hand-dyed commercial wool tops, which can become compacted and harder to draft.

And next you’re saying, but Abby, what if I can’t spin wool? In that case, I recommend giving silk a try, starting with tussah silk; and after that, cotton.

There’s more stuff we’re leaving out, though. There’s a lot of conventional wisdom that floats around where people say “Oh geeze, don’t start with cotton — cotton is hard to spin,” or “Merino isn’t easy to spin, wait on that till you’re more experienced.” And these things may be true — but if you have in your heart of hearts a desire to spin Merino, don’t wait. Buy it now and give it a try. If you want to spin cotton, then spin it — the truth about cotton is that it isn’t harder than wool, it’s completely different. That means wool spinners have a harder time spinning it, because all the knowledge in the world about spinning wool will not help you one bit with cotton. Plenty of people throughout history, in areas where cotton grows and it’s hot and wool isn’t as useful or there aren’t wool-bearing animals, have spun cotton before wool. Remember, there is no One True Way — if you’ve got a hankering to spin some one particular thing, don’t let anybody tell you that you’ll find it too hard. In my experience, you’re much more likely to succeed spinning something you’re really motivated to spin.

And what’s the final thing we’re leaving out? Okay, it’s the question of what not to start with. The answer to that is bad prep. The problem is, as a new spinner, you aren’t likely to know how to tell really good prep from so-so prep from regular commercial prep from serious problem fiber. And unfortunately, the only way you’ll develop a really strong sense of that for yourself is through experience. If you’re fortunate enough to have an experienced spinner to help you find things in person (in which case, why are you reading this? Go make your experienced spinner take you shopping! Bribe him or her with fiber if you have to!) then you can learn a lot by having him or her show you fiber and explain it; but if you don’t, it’s going to be hard to tell.

A few things you can check for: does the fiber seem like it won’t slip easily? Is it full of vegetable matter? Do you hate how it feels when you touch it? Are you not allowed to touch it? You have to be allowed to touch the fiber, in my opinion. This doesn’t mean manhandle or tear apart, but touch it — there are things you can’t tell until you touch it.

If you’ve tried a given fiber and not liked it, incidentally, you might want to try it again in a different preparation. First of all, not all fibers of the same type will be of equal quality; and second of all, all preparations are not equal, either. You might find you hate Merino in commercial top but love it in pin-drafted roving; you might detest mohair in combed top form but love loose locks.

If you’re shopping online and looking for good prices on bulk fiber, a full-service spinning shop can hook you up and help answer other questions for you too. I recommend The Spinning Loft, Spunky Eclectic, Carolina Homespun, Village Spinning and Weaving, and The Fold. There are lots and lots of other shops I can recommend, online and in person, but those are a few starting points — and they’re folks whose booths I’d recommend checking out for certain at fiber fairs. Honest, I just picked a few at random. I’ll do a whole list of my favourite shops one of these days, but that day is not today, alas.

Debates: Wheel vs. Spindle

Here we go with round one of my series tackling some of the classic debates in the handspinning arena. A few of you laughingly commented this might be an odd choice of timing to go picking fights, what with absurd heat waves going around and how that affects temperaments — but then again, perhaps a little productive debate serves as a constructive outlet, eh?

In emailing with folks a bit following last week’s On Opinions and Disagreement, one of the things I found myself talking about was, “Why?” Why get into the arguments at all? And you know, it comes down to something Deborah Robson said in her comment:

Abby, at the first SOAR I attended (not “participated in,” I’ve never done that) just after I became editor of Spin-Off I was given the job of moderating a panel “discussion” on woolen and worsted.

I am a profound introvert (occasional appearances to the contrary) with an entrenched ability to see most sides of nearly any question (may have been my saving quality).

The panel consisted of between six and eight of the most knowledgeable and opinionated handspinners the English-speaking world has ever produced.

Let’s just say (1) I was still standing at the end of the evening (miracle) and (2) there were no definitive answers, although there were a *lot* of opinions expressed and most of the folks in the room (which was packed) thought a lot about yarn while the conversation(s) went on. Whew.

So: Are you going to add “woolen/worsted” to your list of topics?

At some levels, it’s quite straightforward. . . .

That’s exactly it. Even when you sit down a panel of undisputed experts and ask questions that seem straightforward, odds are you won’t come away with definitive and absolute answers; and experts won’t always agree (in fact, they might argue heatedly). But if we listen, and argue, and are invested in the discourse, then odds are we’ll walk away from it all with lots of food for thought, and perspectives we hadn’t considered before.

I told Deb that part of why I want to do this series is to point out that when you go looking for good, solid information, the sources you find don’t have to agree with each other in order to be authoritative. Like Perl programmers always say, TMTOWTDI. Er, excuse me, “There’s more than one way to do it.”

And yes, Deb, I do plan to cover woolen vs. worsted in this series!

Right, then — moving along. One of the questions that newer spinners often ask — and it tends to start debates and sometimes ruffle feathers — is “What’s better, a wheel or a spindle?” Or sometimes, it starts out simply enough with someone stating an assumed perspective such as “I’ve gotten a spindle, and am starting to learn, and I can’t wait till I’m skilled enough to move up to a wheel.” Then someone says “You aren’t required to get a wheel! It’s not necessarily moving up!” and someone else says “Well, since I got my wheel, I sure haven’t spun on spindles,” and the debate is on.

So let me tell you about my own preferences.

I started out with a spindle. A low whorl spindle, fairly clunky and imperfectly balanced, I suppose. I’d guess it must have weighed in around 1.5-2 ounces (or, say, 45-60 grams). The spindle consisted of a fairly straight, smooth-whittled eucalyptus stick (fairly round), and a wooden whorl that had been carved by hand. This was a typical spindle to give to a child, but also a pretty typical spindle for an adult to use. Children and adults alike, once accomplished spinners, would use these spindles for production work.

Now, this isn’t to say that some weren’t better than others, or nobody had favourites, or anything like that. Of course that kind of thing happens — some tools just seem to be better or more comfortable than others, and then too, with use and wear, many tools break in and get better at being tools.

So, too, do spinners. I think this is a key thing in the wheel vs. spindle debate, one we’ll come back to shortly. Well, insofar as “shortly” is something we can ever say about my writing, eh? But seriously, what made it possible — makes it possible — for Andean spinners like the ones from whom I learned to produce fine, spindle-spun high-twist warp yarns in quantity, at the rate they do in the Andes, using only the humblest of tools? The answer is practice. Just as the spindles break in, so do the spinners. It becomes reflex, instinctive. That doesn’t happen overnight, but it does happen — though, perhaps, in years rather than weeks or months.

Indeed, it took me about three years, or three years and change, to reach the point of being an adequate spinner. I started shortly after turning five years old, and it was the year I was eight when people in the Andes first deemed my spinning acceptable in quality, if slowly produced. It was later that same year, back in the USA, when I encountered my first spinning wheels. One was a Shaker-made great wheel that my parents had found who-knows-where, which still resides in my mother’s house and which I covet. The others were wheels that I tried out during the time when my parents were demonstrating Andean weaving at the Sunapee Craft Fair, which our family attended routinely for such purposes for a number of years.

Having finally been deemed a near-adequate spinner by Andean standards, my reaction to the flyer wheel was one of scorn. Its usefulness in producing yarn that qualified as good yarn by Andean weaver standards was almost nonexistent (certainly for such examples as I tried then, which were older Ashfords and Louets, none of them fast wheels). The people spinning, as well, were spinning thick, floppy yarn (often thick and thin) — yarn which my Andean teachers would never have accepted as functional. In a classic display of 8-year-old arrogance, I concluded that the only real purpose for flyer wheels was to make it possible for people who couldn’t really spin to produce any yarn at all — and certainly, no real spinner would stoop to doing it mechanically like that.

The great wheel, on the other hand… ah yes, the great wheel. Spinning with it was hard, for one thing. It was a kind of spinning I just didn’t know how to do yet — you only had one hand to do all the fiber wranging, and the other was used turning the drive wheel. In short order, I came to absolutely love plying on it; in no small part because my parents had started teaching workshops in Andean weaving, but no millspun yarn could readily be found that stood up to the wear and tear of warp-faced weaving where the warp is a structural element in the loom itself. As a result, my parents purchased millspun coned weaving yarns, and added plying twist to them to make them wear better for those classes. This was tedious for certain — and a great opportunity to put a willing kid to work with an incredibly fast means of twist insertion.

By the time I was 10, I had learned to use hand cards, produce rolags, and spin long draw woolen yarns. I did enjoy that, but the problem was that I couldn’t use those yarns for Andean weaving, absolutely my fiber art of choice. The woolens made great weft (but who cares, if you want to weave warp-faced fabric?) and knitting yarn (but knitting is boooooooooring!) so again, I mostly stuck with spindles, which I viably could use to produce the yarns I wanted to use.

Indeed, it wasn’t until my late 20s when I decided that I wanted to spin “gringo yarn” for crochet and, later, knitting. When I did, reluctantly at first, I eventually concluded that I was going to need a spinning wheel to do it, if nothing else because I’d spent decades with my spindles producing yarn for Andean weaving. I needed a small flyer wheel too, because space was at a premium in my life then, and I ended up with one of those very Ashfords that I’d scorned all those years ago. There I was, working on spinning thick, loose, low-twist, floppy yarn on purpose. I never would have imagined it possible when I was a kid, but it was true.

Then, I set out to try to spin Andean weaving yarn to my satisfaction with a flyer wheel. UGH! What an exercise in futility and boredom — yet it was a trifle to do with a spindle. I felt like I simply couldn’t do it fast enough. And in the long run, you know what? The truth is that I spin Andean weaving yarn faster with a low whorl spindle than anything else. That simplest of tools is truly the best one for the job.

The thing is, it might not be the best tool for the job for everyone. I’m not an objective judge; I have the experience of being trained from early childhood to produce that yarn in that way. While I learned other spinning methods and so forth as a child as well, they’re not what I was steeped in. I’ve got a level of expertise with the Andean spinning that I will most likely never achieve with any other kind of spinning.

Trying hard to be as objective as possible, though, one thing I can definitely say is that being a hard-core production spinner with a spindle requires more of someone than producing that volume with a wheel. There is a longer learning curve. Once you commit to it, and once you achieve the comfort level the tool requires to be used in a production capacity, you can do tremendous things with it, and indeed, even outperform more technologically advanced tools in many cases. But the more technologically advanced tool will allow you to reach higher production levels more quickly, with less time invested in training.

In watching some one of those many history channel type shows, one time I saw one that was talking about weapons development, and the English longbowman. These were dudes who were trained for lifetimes to be able to deliver a deadly sustained rate of fire on a battlefield. They were terrifying, and extremely valuable because of the time involved in training one up. But then the firearm entered the world, and the same sustained rate of deadliness could be brought to a battlefield by someone *without* a lifetime of training. Suddenly, the same level of deadliness was available to people who were investing money in firearms rather than time and related resources in training for the longbow. Instead of that military force being something you could only get through lifelong training programs, it was now something you could get thanks to machinery.

Exactly the same thing is true for textile production. In the Andean town where I spent so much of my childhood, tremendous levels of productivity were achieved thanks to training up from childhood on, and everybody being involved in it. In the more modernized world, however, the need to produce textiles is solved more by mechanization than by lifelong training.

Let’s take a side trip for a moment, and consider too the John Henry story — no matter how good he was at driving spikes, he couldn’t beat the railroad-laying machine. Then, too, Paul Bunyan was defeated by a machine in the end. The same holds true for textile production: no human, no matter how amazingly skilled, can beat the mill in the end.

The implications of these historical events and these folk tales is worth pondering. Is it in fact the case that a peasant with a gun does exactly what a longbowman does? Are tracks laid by John Henry indistinguishable from those laid with a rail-building machine? Can we detect any difference between Paul Bunyan’s logs and the logs cut by a logging machine? I would say that some people can, and some people can’t.

For some, there’s clearly an art to the longbow that’s different from, and unrelated to, simply putting firepower on a battlefield. There’s a mythos to the figures of John Henry and Paul Bunyan that speaks to people — an allure in the capabilities of humans who seem larger than life because they can perform amazing feats. And so in some cases we glamourize the longbowman, mourn the defeat of John Henry or Paul Bunyan — even as we avail ourselves of the advantages of greater speed, availability, and lower cost. Eventually, we mourn the loss of whatever it was that we might have learned from these archetypal figures — but we don’t stop to think, what did it take to defeat the longbowman, the John Henry or Paul Bunyan? It required that we create machines to do so, because the capabilities of these highly-skilled humans was such that their accomplishments seemed impossible.

The spinning wheel is a machine. It is one of the machines upon which civilization is built. And mechanization isn’t bad; it’s essential to our lives and those of our forebears going back aeons. Machines are invented, by and large, to do things that people do and do them faster and cheaper, or to do things people can envision doing, but can’t quite.

The spindle, on the other hand, is a simple tool. It is a hammer, a straight saw, a chisel, a source of heat, a pot or pan, a knife, a pen. Where the spinning wheel is a printing press, a spindle is a pen. Both require skill and training to operate… and there are things you can do with one that you can’t do with the other, and that goes both ways.

My son sometimes contends that there is no reason to write longhand, given computers and typing, which are faster. Some say there’s no reason to memorize multiplication tables if you have calculators (or, heck, the table itself written out to refer to). Most of us would reflexively disagree, though, and say “Sure there is!” And much of that, I believe, is because we’ve memorized our multiplication tables, learned to write longhand, and the skills are second nature. But will they be generations from now?

Consider: if one has not spent a lifetime writing longhand, one has not developed the skills in it of a person who has. Someone who has spent that lifetime possesses a facility with the tools of paper and pen which can’t be matched by someone who’s spent little time with it. For that person — like my son — typing is just faster and writing doesn’t seem worth it. And maybe it isn’t. Maybe the thing I find magical about putting pen to paper and making marks is really… nothing, or nothing universal.

If we were to look carefully at children now, we would likely find that many of them can’t tie their shoes — something that people in their 30s and older would assume is an essential skill. But in this era of high-tech fasteners like velcro, is it really? It isn’t, if you never get shoes that must be tied.

But now let’s go back over all of these examples. While the first gun-armed troops to take the field may have been less skilled, less trained than a longbowman, now, there are skills and arts and highly refined practices that go with firearms, too, and people who spend lifetimes perfecting those. There are things achieved because railroads could be laid, or lumber could be brought in, faster, safer. There are things written and published thanks to typing, which never would have been if written longhand. So it’s not like these technologies are bad. They just do things a little different, and what we get from them is a little different, and in general, the technological approach appeals to most humans — at the very same time as there is a romance to thinking about the humans who have so excelled at what they did that the only way to outdo them was by building machines.

The down side to mechanization is that we do lose a little, sometimes. Where, now, are the longbowmen, the superhuman railroad-layers and loggers, the illuminators of manuscripts? They’re gone; and with them, perhaps, the facility with a bow, hammer, saw, or pen that those folks must have possessed to do what they did.

If they aren’t gone, they’re few in number. Certainly this is true for those who can do production work with spindles — and that’s part of why I think we now believe, and accept so readily, that wheels just are faster. It’s true that they are, for some things. But not for all. However, most of us never have the chance to develop the real spindle speed that made spindles so ubiquitous a tool for most of human history. We tend to move on quickly to things that get us results faster, and perhaps not explore the results we never really knew were possible with the simple tool.

For this reason, I do urge spinners not to simply eschew the spindle altogether, and not to view it as only a low-cost starter tool that will help you to decide if you want to do this enough to spend the money on a wheel. Spinning on a wheel and spinning on a spindle are the same, and not. They are related, and they’re totally different.

Lately, truth be told, I do more spinning while sitting around; and I do more knitting than anything else. So I’m spinning more on wheels than I am on spindes. But I never leave the house without my bag that carries, among other things, a spindle and some fiber. Spinning on the go is easy for me, being a skill I learned in early childhood. I can do it while I’m doing almost anything else. It’s more portable, more forgiving, than knitting projects (though maybe if I ever knitted anything that wasn’t lace…) and spinning on the go is really just part of my way of life.

Summing up, if I want to spin very fine or short-stapled fibers, I do it on a spindle. If I want to spin on the go, again, spindle. If I want to spin super high-twist yarn, spindle. If I want knitting yarn, thicker yarn, or to spin while watching TV, then I opt for the wheel.

And lastly, don’t assume — like I did, about flyer wheels as a child — that a tool you scorn or dislike now will never be one that you find useful. It may take decades for perspectives and wants and needs to shift, but they can; and being open to that can be very rewarding.

Tuesday was a Dye Day

That’s about all the useful content I have for now; I’m too slammed with back-to-school prep and trying to keep all balls in play, to be able to pull together anything really cogent.

“Spindle vs. Wheel” is in final editing stages; hopefully tomorrow. The break in the weather has windows finally open and a little natural air; amazing how cool 92F can feel after days of more than 100. I’m thrilled to have gotten a few pounds of superwash/tencel and merino/tussah dyed up in the past week, not to mention some custom orders and a bunch of blending stuff that’ll soon be showing up as batts. Fighting heat and humidity to get stuff dyed and dried has been really exciting. Watching fiber dry, it turns out, is more interesting than watching paint dry. But it sure doesn’t happen fast in Ohio Valley August.

Today, it’s back to batts. Batts batts batts batts batts! Oy. Also, batts! I’ve updated First Dibs pages (you can get to all of them from the Shop Abby’s Yarns link at the top of the page) with the dye day goodies, and there’ll be new batts going up this afternoon also. Expect daily, or near-daily updates, to those pages from now through the start of school next week. After next week, things people haven’t dibsed will be headed for eBay, and I’ll be in Batt Club production mode again, and there won’t be new stuff other than that for a little bit.

In other news, I cleaned out my camera phone’s memory card, and have concluded that the camera phone may just possibly be one of the stupidest, horriblest inventions ever. It gives you the illusion of having some semblance of a camera with you, but really, even if it’s got decent resolution, the optics are such a joke that… well…

Can you even remotely tell that’s a Blackhawk helicopter in the background? I arrived to pick the manchild up from day camp early this summer, and they’d had the helicopter there (“The pilot is a friend of the guy who runs the camp,” Edward explained) for kids to climb in and out of and whatnot.

Or this.

It was an ice storm; it was dramatic and pretty. You’d never know. Then we have other moments…

There I am, carding and carding and carding with my foot on Cardzilla’s pedal, and in sneaks Kaylee and lays down on my foot. I think she’d been with us for about a week at that point. Normally, I keep the cats out of the workroom — Paimei likes cashmere, there’s whirring equipment, and customers have pet allergies, so, sorry cats. But Kaylee snuck in that time. And I realize she’s the exact colour of the carpet and it’s perfect camouflage, but geeze. This is what I’m talking about — you wanna be able to whip out your camera phone and snap a photo that… is… well, visible. And look at Miss Moneypenny:

She’s like the Cheshire Cat.

But sometimes it gives you hope. Edward and I, at a stop sign, got ready for our fourth Turning of a 5,000 Miles in Ginny, the Mommy Car. Every one of those 5,000 mile markers, he and I have been in the car going someplace listening to funk. It was a coincidence the first 3 times, but we figure it’s a tradition now.

The next stop sign, we knew, we’d have turned 20k. And we did. So I took another picture to document the occasion.

For cryin’ out loud. But then pictures come out fine when it’s of a post-office run:

but I forgot all about how I’d planned to blog about how the manchild helped me make that one…

So really, what’s the point of the stupid camera phone? It’s nothing but awful, terrible pictures of things you wish you had a halfway decent picture of, and then there you are with these hideous shots, saying “Well, uh, so here’s the terrible photo of something really cool…” And I mean, the screens on them are too small to be able to see anything when you send pics to other people, too. Or maybe my phone is just almost 2 years old and needs replacing. Blech.

But yeah, anyway, back to the happy photos. Like this one.

Or this one.

Or this one.

Maybe what I need is a digital SLR that makes phone calls and fits in my pocket. Not a phonecamera, but a camera… with phone. Hah.

Productivity after all…

Things finally cooled off a bit yesterday, assuming that it’s really reasonable to consider “about 90F” to be “cool,” which I suppose it is, in context. Clearly, all you Australians would find that quite pleasant in summer, hrmmm? That’s around 33C. Personally, I find 27-28C to be about the perfect temperature.

Well, anyway, I did manage to get a few batts churned out, and those are now listed for First Dibs (right sidebar, you guys remember the drill, right?) And I’ve been working on specific blending goals with a local theme, lately. Here’s one I’m rather pleased with, in fact.

2006 was our first summer here. Sometime in July, we started seeing signs go up at all the produce places reading “INDIANA MELON.” Now, you have to realize — I spent the formative years of my adulthood living in Chicago. This meant Indiana could be described in the following ways:

  • Source of cigarettes without Cook County tax stamp
  • Where people sneakily register their cars to avoid having to get a city sticker
  • Home of the ubiquitous-advertising Tom Raper RVs
  • Gary
  • Sells fireworks.
  • “There’s more than cooooorn…. in Indiaaana…” (the song from an ad for Indiana Beach)

And, despite the first few years that I lived in Chicago being spent on the road with a blues band, driving to gigs all over the place, I don’t think we once did a gig in Indiana. No, so far as we could tell, Indiana was a strange space in between Illinois and Ohio (maybe neither state wanted it?) where even time didn’t obey the same rules as everywhere else (they didn’t observe daylight savings time). We’d cross Indiana to get to Ohio or Kentucky; and in the summer, the drive would seem endless, like almost as long as the drive lengthwise across Nebraska, only with corn instead of cattle. After about the first 15 years of the drive, invariably, someone would start cackling in a slightly mad way, and then sing, “There’s more than coooorn… in Indiaaana…” only to be rewarded with heaping insults as the advertising jingle got stuck in everyone’s head. Another 15 years would then go by, and someone else would do the same thing. Really.

Only 100 more miles to Tom Raper RVs!

Well, anyway. So I looked at these Indiana Melons that seemed to be a big deal, and thought to myself, “Looks like a giant canteloupe. Okay.”

Then my in-laws fed us some.

Now, I’m not about to head for my old southside stomping grounds, walk into a dive bar, and pick a fight on Indiana’s behalf. I am, you see, far too old and washed-up for that sort of behaviour. But Indiana Melon, available for a short time every year and only if you’re close to Indiana, is possibly a good enough reason to do so.

If you’re in range of produce stands with signs that say INDIANA MELON, and you have not eaten one of them, then stop reading this, right now, and go buy yourself an Indiana Melon, before it’s too late and you can’t do it again till next year. Throw something on the grill, boil up some sweet corn, chop up an Indiana Melon, and feast.

Anyway, so that’s what I was going for with these batts.

And now that I’ve evangelized at least one thing about one of my fine neighbour states, it’s time to briefly touch on something that comes from another. We’ve had a drought this summer, you may recall, and a big heat wave. And you know what’s done well in our yard?

The Kentucky Bluegrass.

The batts are merino/tussah silk/camel down and a hint of tencel to make the dewy sheen a little different. And just like the actual grass, it’s not exactly blue, but if you see it from the right angle, and enough of it, it sure leaps out from the other grasses near it.

Well, other than the local inspiration, I did decide I was going to try to make a blend that would look good with some seed pearl beads that I got. Mother-of-pearl, I figured. And I came close. My first try… well, it yielded… mist.

So then I tried again, and got… Princess.

Third time’s the charm, right? We’ll see; those batts are ready for their final pass now.

Oh! And there’s a tweed. A merino/silk/cashmere tweed. Mmmmm.

These are all up for first dibs.

In other productivity, I have chosen 14 colourways for wools, and 9 colourways for silk, to be my new production lines — and they’re available for you to preorder now. Just check the Shop Abby’s Yarns link at the top of the page, or go here. Now you can get those matched dye lot larger batches, and get discounts on them too!

Whew. Now I think I’ll go have a weekend (which for the self-employed, tends to mean “do all those chores I blew off this week.”)

What are batts, top, roving, and so forth?

Freshly updated, now with more questions answered, Fri Aug 10 09:02:08 EDT 2007!

It’s common nowadays for a lot of folks in the fiber world to use the word “roving” to rever to any unspun fiber. The thing is, this isn’t really accurate and doesn’t give a clear sense of what the preparation really is — and the preparation is relevant! So, here’s a list of some of the preparations out there, and an explanation of terms (photos to come).

– a true top, a combed top for real, not just a commercial top, is the only thing from which you can spin a true traditional worsted yarn, in which all the fibers are parallel, smoothed down into the yarn with the air squeezed out of it, and no twist in the drafting zone. This prep is really best suited to true worsted spinning, but can be spun semi-worsted (using woolen technique).

– a commercial top is a machine-produced variant of this — sort of. The fibers are pretty much all going the same direction, but there’s a ton more of them and it actually feels fairly different from spinning a true combed top. Once you’re used to this prep, you can spin a pretty fair worsted, a pretty fair woolenish, and a range of things in between, from this prep.

– a rolag is what you make when you use hand cards in the traditional way — it’s like a poofy roll of fiber. Traditionally, for woolen spinning, you use these, spin from one end, and you have your fibers going multiple directions and around and around, sort of. You could spin this with worsted technique, but it would be slow and you’d still get fuzzy yarn, not smooth yarn; but it would be stronger than a traditional woolen.

– a batt is made on a drum carder and is like a blanket of fibers, carded, but more aligned than you typically get in a rolag. You can strip these, pre-draft them, tear off chunks, roll them up, and spin them with what’s considered either woolen or worsted technique; and you can pull them or tear them into rovings.

– a roving is a carded thing, sort of wrist-thick a lot of the time though it can vary; one way or another they’re usually made from something that might as well be batts, either pulled off the carding equipment in roving form, or in some cases pulled later from a batt. On really big carders, the industrial ones that produce roving at small mills nowadays for example, the batts you’d get would be bedspread-sized, so you don’t see those too often; instead you get roving.

– a sliver is a thinner variant of a roving (to simplify). Sliver doesn’t have any twist to it at all, while roving has a tiny bit of twist (not spinning twist, but a slight twist to the entire rope). Sliver is what mills generally call their intermediate stage.

– pin-drafted roving has been carefully drafted through a series of pins, producing an open, lofty roving with a more aligned prep than is typical of other rovings.

– Puni – similar to a rolag. Prepared on handcarders, then the fibers are rolled on a stick and compressed by rolling this stick on a flat surface. Used a lot for cotton and other fine fibers. (thanks Glenna!)

In the European-derived spinning traditions, things are broken up into worsted and woolen yarns; worsteds are tightly spun, without air trapped between the fibers, and from combed prep with all the fibers parallel, producing a smoother, longer-wearing yarn. Woolens are produced from carded prep, using more hands-off techniques, so to speak, resulting in a more heterogeneous fiber alignment and air trapped in the yarn. Woolens are loftier, worsteds are denser. In these traditions, it is not possible to spin a true worsted unless you use both worsted prep, and worsted technique; same for woolen: you need woolen prep and woolen technique. However, these just define ends of a specific spinning spectrum (mmmm how alliterative!) and you can mix and match for results which traverse that spectrum. And of course, there are non-European textile traditions which don’t exactly fit in that spectrum, though when they’re being discussed by English-speakers they are often shoehorned in and those terms are used to describe things, as people don’t necessarily have a familiarity with the other-language and other-culture terms and distinctions.

Another important thing to note about the types of fiber preparations available for handspinners today is that many of them are not handspinner’s prep — they’re intermediate stages in industrial processing, adapted (or adaptable) for handspinning. This gives rise to new, hybrid techniques, new conventional wisdoms, and new debates about “best practices” when spinning from one type of prep or another or with various different goals in mind.

The bottom line is that there are more preparations of fiber, done by hand or done by machine, available to the handspinner now than at any time before. Familiarizing yourself with the offerings can take a while, but be a real thrill — and it can lead you to decide you would like to learn how to do more of your own prep, and open whole new worlds in handspinning.


Well, the last of Batt Club shipments finally made it out the door yesterday after a lengthy manual data entry project necessitated by (clearly sub-standard) shipping software. And I’m a big girl: I’ll admit it. It was slowed down terribly by one simple, terrible mistake on my part. It involved my longhand-numbered list, which went to 40. I spent easily an hour, or maybe more, poring over the simple list, numbered by hand… and the one I keyed in, and shipment records for July, trying to figure out who I was missing. You see, the official list had 39 people on it, not 40. I couldn’t figure out who I had dropped, and how.

Ultimately, the answer turned out to be that when I wrote numbers next to the list… get this… I skipped #33. I mean, I jumped from 32 to 34. No, I don’t know how, or why. But I did. And fortunately it dawned on me after a rather extensive span of panic and mopping my anguished brow.

Oh, okay, so the brow-mopping was in no small part also due to the packing of everyone’s shipments of soft, fluffy, warm, cozy fiber… during the hottest week in more than a decade, according to the paper. Yes, I do have air conditioning (or you guys would be getting two shipments in September and I’d be going to swim camp with the manchild). But it’s so humid. And definitely an awful time to be at the carder. The weather web site says it’s 99F / 37C right now, with 38% humidity. Honestly, I think it has to be wrong on the humidity, and maybe the temperature. Walking outside, it’s like a wall of HOT. It’s like… it’s like… well, today’s Jim Borgman cartoon in the Cincinnati paper. Yeah, this nails it.

So, I can’t get anything meaningful done right now. Typing makes me sweat. The heat fatigue sets in by shortly after noon. It’s literally like a steam room out there. I’ve been working my drafts, like of the “Spindle vs. Wheel?” post I promised for Monday, and didn’t deliver then, or yesterday, OR today. It’s too hot to think! Literally! My body temperature is usually about 97F; if the ambient temperature gets around there, I start to feel feverish and dumb after a little while. It’s awful. I am a delicate and fragile flower who wasn’t cut out for this, and I have wilted. Weep for me. That is, if you can spare the moisture.

So, anyway, the heat being so oppressive, I’ve got nothing to show you. Seriously, nothing. I did knit a couple of rows on the Foggy Foggy Dew shawl. Treadling makes me sweat so I’m not spinning while slothing, and I’m certainly not swathing myself in a light, lacy, but very warm layer of knitting. I’m too lazy by the time I sit down to walk across the room and pick up my spindle project. I sit, in air conditioning, with a fan pointed at me, eating popsicles and drinking water. Every so often, I go outside so that I feel better when I come back in. I’d probably take 3 showers a day, except then I’d have to find clean clothes 3 times a day, and that would make more laundry and I’d have to do that. No. Gimme a popsicle, I’m gonna go stand on the air conditioning vent.

It’s clear I’m becoming ever more of a heat wimp as I… mature. I’d swear that I remember heat emergency summers in Chicago, similar in temperature and humidity to this one, when I was in my early 20s, and that I used to do things then. I mean, things like ride public transit to work and back, and walk places intentionally, and live in an apartment with no air conditioning. And none of the places I lived as a kid had air conditioning. So what gives? Like I say, I’m a wimp about this now. That must be it.

As of today, incidentally, there are 2 weeks of summer vacation remaining for the lad. He reports that it has been the best summer of his life ever, and as for me, I can’t get past the Dog Day Angst. Obviously, I’m going to need more popsicles. Lots more. Those might even be worth going outside to get.

Good News, Bad News

Well, the good news is, round 2 of Batt Club is nearing completion and is absolutely stunning, if I say so myself. In fact, the truth is, it’s one my most favourite blends, I’ve been remembering how much I love this blend, and loving every single batt that’s coming off Cardzilla as I go.

The bad news is I’ve got to let it all go. And it’s so pretty, too.

The next good news is I’ve made both a Flickr! group and a Yahoo! group for Batt Club members to discuss their projects and share photos.

The Yahoo! group is here: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/battclub/

And the Flickr group is here: Flickr Batt Club Group.

The bad news, alas, is that I won’t be shipping Batt Club today, because somebody forgot that she had to go to the periodontist yesterday, and take the kitten to the vet today.

No, I won’t name names. I’ve berated her harshly, though, and she promises she’ll be shipping Monday. She’s very apologetic.

Cleaning A Drum Carder

Well, I had to give Cardzilla a good cleaning after a tweed blend I just finished up, so I figured I’d document the process for all to see.

You can really tell the poor guy needs a cleaning. Look at all this trash on the main drum!

And the lickerin drum — stuff piles up there after a huge batch. This is, as it was explained to me when I got my first Strauch, “where everything piles up that you didn’t want in your batt anyway, if you’re doing it right.”

And grit and fiber get everywhere — like down in the bearings and around the axles and everything, if you aren’t careful.

This can be very annoying.

It could also be a huge problem if you let it pile up, and cause mechanical issues. Best case, you end up saying “Wow, did this thing come with felt washers? I don’t remember that!” and worst case, well, you get problems. Ideally, I notice if this is happening and clear it immediately. Sometimes I don’t, though. These things happen. We’ll take care of it.

First things first. I grab one of my beater Ashford student hand cards…

…and, with the carder moving forward, gently clean off the licker-in. I start here because the main drum is going to pick stuff up off the licker-in as I loosen it, and if I had done the main drum first and gotten it all clean, I’d just have to start over.

Once I have the licker-in well cleaned, I move on to the main drum. I use the Ashford hand card here because, I admit it, it’s larger, and I’m lazy.

With the hand card resting lightly there, I operate the carder in reverse. Most of the excess fluff just comes right off.

Then I have a hand card full of trash fiber.

I repeat this step as needed, ending up with a pile like this.

Ted asked recently about the “trash yarn” that I spindle spun from drum carder trash — how do I prep it for spinning? Well, here it is! I’ll tell you more about that in an upcoming post. But this is what I do for prep.

With the big stuff off, then I have at those bearings and axles with tweezers.

And ugh, this is the scary part. Did you guys notice what it says on that yellow sticker that’s been in the background a few times? It’s not kidding; this is how I generally wound myself — grabbing bits of fluff and accidentally jabbing a finger into the licker-in.

Once I’ve picked the axles clean, going forward and back to unwrap fibers, I move on to the tool that actually comes with a Strauch carder for cleaning the main drum: a flick carder. The teeth are longer, and they dig things out better than the Ashford hand card does, but it’s also a smaller tool so I use it in a second pass when needed.

Lots and lots of stuff comes off this way, but not the volume that the first pass got.

So now, we’re looking good, right?


You can’t necessarily see it easily, but after I take that fella (the technical term is a “foosher,” because you use it to foosh things with canned air)…

Holy cow, there really was more stuff there, kinda hiding.

And if we didn’t get those out, those would be neps in our next batt. Yuck.

Okay, so now we’re done, right? Right? I mean, look at the axles here.

Sorry guys. Not done.

What? Aw, c’mon! What is that?

It’s where your nagging mom says, “Did you pick up the rug and sweep under it, or just push the dirt around it?”

Sigh. Okay, okay.

And then we’re still not done. Look at the carder in that photo, and ignore the pile of debris! More neppy trash.

This brush, too, is a Strauch tool that comes with. You use it after all the other things.

Okay, now we’re looking good.

Yeah, looks pretty decent.

However, the absolute and undeniable truth of the matter is that there’s *still* going to be stuff on here sometimes! So I usually run through a light batt of fine white merino wool, lightly misted with water. That picks up any dust and particles I might have missed. Also check the brush attachment if you have one, and make sure you don’t have lingering junk there either.

I cannot stress enough that the big yellow sticker means business, especially if you are cleaning a motorized carder. Don’t screw up. Even if you are as careful as I am, believe me, you can hurt yourself. And when I do, usually it’s by jabbing the pad of my index finger just so, getting a wound that takes a while to close nicely, and irritating the bejesus out of me when I want to settle down and spin that evening. Or knit, crochet, weave, write with a pencil, or do almost anything… sigh!

In general, you want to clean like this either any time that your carder needs it, or if you’re moving from one type of fiber to another, or changing colours. The more often you do it, the faster it will go. The more attentive you are while carding, the less time you have to spend on the annoying parts like tweezing fiber out of crevices.

Improper use and inadequate maintenance are the things that kill drum carders. With decent cleaning and maintenance alone, and if you make sure you follow your carder’s instructions, the carder itself can last basically forever. Cardzilla is no spring chicken, and the only thing he’s ever needed other than cleaning is a new motor — the aftermarket part.

Your specific carder may call for slightly different maintenance and cleaning practices than mine does; always do what the guy who made your carder tells you to do, instead of what some random chick on the Internet says.