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.