You’re working with industrially-produced Blue Faced Leicester (BFL) top, and you find that the yarn you’re producing makes a stiff, dense yarn. Is there any way to make it loftier?
The Short Answer:
Probably. Many spinners — some people would even say most, these days — default to a drafting method that tends more to the worsted side than not. This means methods like the short forward draw, or many two-handed drafting methods that focus on keeping twist well out of your drafting zone and potentially smoothing and compressing your fibers as you ease the twist into them, forming your yarn. These methods tend to produce a denser, smoother yarn; one whose tendency is to drape and lay sleek and stand a lot of wear. If you’re working from combed top, spinning from the fold with a long draw method will produce more loft than any other option.
The Long Answer:
If you want a lofty yarn, with lots of air trapped in the fibers, there are various ways to get it, but for now we’ll skip much discussion of the ones that deal with fiber selection (choose a fiber that has a lot of bounce, like a high-crimp wool) and preparation (use a carded preparation, instead of a combed one), and focus specifically on how to get more loft from an industrially-produced combed top — something that looks like this:
Most of the fiber being sold ready to spin in the developed world is exactly this type of preparation — an intermediate stage in big-mill production of yarn. It’s not, at its roots, a handspinner’s preparation, but it is widely available, affordable, and generally speaking, pretty easy to work with. Many of today’s indie dyers buy this type of prepared fiber as a base for their wonderful dye work. Few dyers work with carded roving, as it’s generally harder to source, more expensive than industrially combed top, tends to compact significantly in a dyebath.
The last thing I’ll say about this for now is that if you want a lofty yarn, your best bet really is smart to choose a fiber and a preparation that lend themselves to that well. Your second best bet is to choose a fiber that lends itself to that, and a preparation that doesn’t so much or that could go either way. Your least ideal bet is to seek out a fiber that isn’t lofty by nature, in a preparation that is also not loft-inducing. With BFL top, we are in that latter situation: it is going to be harder to get loft out of that fiber, prepared that way.
On the other hand, it makes a decent example of why drafting method matters.
Here’s the top we’re starting out with.
A fairly typical example of this type of product, this BFL top is from Louet North America, and it’s naturally coloured, not dyed. This, and product like it, can be dyed, and we’ll talk a bit about that later. Here’s a tuft of the top a bit more than a staple length long.
As you can see, the fibers are all aligned parallel, the hallmark of a combed preparation. In a carded preparation, fibers would be going every-which-way.
I took chunks the size of the above — about 4 grams each — and spun three quick samples.
The first I spun with a short forward draw, from the end of the top. This means pulling out from my fiber supply exactly the fibers I need to make yarn the thickness I desire, keeping twist out of the area where I’m drafting, then smoothing it back in. Draws are in the vicinity of one half the staple length to 1.5x the staple length of the fiber; opinion and experience varies about this and people’s short forward draws will vary too, but generally stay within that range.
The second sample I spun by first stripping the top 6 ways…
and then further predrafting it out into tidy little nests. I didn’t predraft it to the point where I would only be adding twist and feeding it onto a wheel; I spun it with a medium forward draw, which is like the short draw, except less religious about keeping twist out of the drafting zone and with a drafting zone that usually starts at longer than a staple length and goes to 2-3 times the staple length sometimes. For beginning and intermediate spinners who commonly engage in this type of splitting and predrafting, this is a method I have seen used by many.
For me, this is not a lot of drafting at the wheel. I don’t use this method often because ultimately it is more time-consuming and harder to control thickness, and it really doesn’t bring anything beneficial to the mix except in cases where the fiber has a problem, such as being a little felted or stuck together from a sub-optimal dye job, or if there is a specific colour effect desired from a multicolour top.
The third sample I spun from the fold with a supported long draw — one hand up by the orifice moderating the takeup and twist, drafting back against active and fast-moving twist, with a drafting zone that quickly goes from about half a staple length to 2-3 feet (say 60-100 cm). This is an entirely different method of drafting, one which is truly required by short-stapled fibers like cotton and short down fibers, but which can be used with longer ones to address exactly the question asked at the start of this article.
I spun all the samples to a rough ballpark of similar thickness, bearing in mind that drafting methods affect this. Here’s how they all look on the bobbin next to each other, from left to right.
I skeined up the samples and weighed them, writing down those specs. The first sample, the short forward draw one, I marked by tying a piece of white waste yarn around, so it would be easy to identify after washing; I knew the third sample would be obvious, so I just needed a way to differentiate the other two from each other.
After washing, then letting them dry resting flat on the shelf in my dryer, the kinky samples above looked more like this.
I measured the yardage, and the wraps per inch. Here are the results.
Let’s call sample 1 our baseline. Sample 2 is a little thinner; about 8% more wraps per inch than the baseline. By weight it’s about 10% more yards per pound. All in all, those two percentages sort of cancel each other out; once we account for the difference in thickness we see that the density of the second yarn is fairly similar to that of the first yarn. I would even say within the range of unpredictable margin of error due to small sample and limitations of the measuring equipment.
Sample 3 is a different story. Compared to sample 1, it is about 23% thicker; at the same time, it is almost 22% more yards per pound than sample 1. If I wrote ad copy I would totally say “Now! 45% more loft and thickness!” If this yarn were thicker and denser, we’d expect to see fewer yards per pound; instead
we see the opposite.
Another consideration is that the final yarn is also lower-twist than the first two samples. This allows for greater bloom (poofing up) in the wash. Still, in the on-the-bobbin shot, the difference between the third sample and the first two is clearly visible.
Also, I’m a very skilled spinner who is readily able to use all of these drafting methods and others besides. If you are not, then chances are your first results aren’t going to be this dramatic. It’ll take time and practice.
Lastly, fiber selection and preparation type have a huge hand in this — very huge. So you would achieve even greater results by taking those things into consideration; however for the sake of answering the question as asked, “What can I do to make my BFL top spin into less dense yarn,” I’ll let this stand.