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.

10 thoughts on “So What’s Really The Right Fiber To Start With?

  1. Great post, Abby! I was lucky enough to living close to Weaving Works in Seattle where you can buy a number of different commercial prep fiber by the ounce. I bought an ounce of everything and tried them out on my spindle.

    I, too, was told not to start with merino because “it’s too hard.” Guess what? Silk and merino were my favorites. Go figure.

    So, my recommendation to new spinners is to try as many different fibers as you can. Check your guild members for small samples of their stash.

  2. my teacher told us that she was teaching us to spin with merino, because if we could spin that, we could spin anything. so far, she’s been right! of course, merino is my favorite, lol!

  3. Great post, Abby!

    I was lucky enough not to get sucked in by the “XYZ is impossible for beginners” trope when I started spinning last summer, and have had great luck with a wide variety of animal fibers (I don’t knit with plant fibers, so I don’t spin them).

    The one exception is silk (hankies)–tried it and wanted to kill myself, it was so frustrating, so I just tossed it out, no regrets. Do you think there’s a silk put-up that’s worth trying? I enjoy knitting with it, so I’d like to spin it, but ARGH–I hated, hated, hated everything about those hankies. The insane prep requirements, the sticking to everything, the icky feel, the inability to draft without using some kind of simple machine, yada yada.
    You don’t have to answer directly, I know you’re busy. But for those of us (I know I’m not alone!) with this issue, a post, someday, on silk preps and just dealing with the stuff would be fab.

  4. Thanks for the great list! I just went with “buy anything that catches your eye” and have just about covered you list I think. But now I have justification for everything which is always helpful for combating those nasty whispers in the back of your mind when you want to buy still more. Now I can silence them with “But those are my learning fibers, they don’t count.” Right?

  5. PS for Molly, who I can’t get to directly apparently: I found silk hankies to be the hardest of the silk preps to spin. Partly because my hands are not the softest things on the planet (unfortunately) so the hankies would catch on the rough spots and it felt like trying to spin spider web almost. But silk top was a dream, once I got used to the difference from wool of course. And even for the top I needed to keep my hands lotioned. I found a creamy lotion that seemed to soak in enough to not leave residue on the silk itself and then I was fine.

  6. And speaking of sampler packs–if you want to make one up for yourself, or for a friend, Halcyon Yarn sells fiber in one-ounce increments, which was enough for me to go through and figure out what I did and didn’t like.

  7. Hi Abby. I have a spinning shop and all of the stuff you said is what I tell my new spinners. But your list for a beginning stash is great and I will use it if you don’t mind=)
    Also, sometime some more information abut how you get speed from your drop spindle would be great. I love my spindles and have won several ribbons this summer with my spindle spun yarns. One is an Ann Grout Support Spindle and the other a top whorl Golding. Any info you can provide for speeding up the spindle spinning would be appreciated.

  8. Can I please second Beth’s request for advice on improving one’s spindling speed?

    I think I’m the youngest person in my guild by about 30 years (they’re double my age) and every last one of them seems to believe that spindles aren’t for ‘serious’ spinners – that they’re spinning toys which one leaves behind and upgrades to a wheel. I love my spindles and I’d like to prove that it’s not the case, but while I’m so slow I’m afraid any debate will fall on deaf ears.

  9. Nobody has asked this, so I will. (Someone will want to know.)

    Which breeds would you identify as “medium” wools?

  10. Pingback: Addicted to Yarn « Musing Maps

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