It’s coming around again, as it has probably for time immemorial — the thing where someone who doesn’t knit discovers that there are people who do knit, and some of them are apparently under the age of 90, and then the next thing we know, someone is writing articles or spouting this line on TV or social media or something:
“This is not your grandmother’s knitting.”
Every time someone says this, picture the knitters of the developed world all crying out in unison as they slam their heads into their keyboards, tablets, smartphones, countertops covered in a newspaper, airplane tray tables beneath a magazine… you get the picture. Seriously. Just imagine us all casting our eyes upwards and beseeching the heavens for some sort of answer as to why THIS of all things is the line we’re saddled with hearing from the news media and our non-yarnish friends.
So I just thought I’d take a moment to say this:
Actually, this IS my grandmother’s knitting.
And these are some of her knitting needles. My uncle was kind enough to give them to me right away when my grandmother passed on last year.
My grandmother Rachel was a painter, potter, weaver, spinner, dyer, knitter, crocheter, sewer, embroiderer, cook, and countless other things. I cannot remember a time before she put yarn and yarn activities in my hands, and there was never a time growing up when I didn’t have plenty of clothes she made for me, in lots of ways. I have many of them to this day, and certainly, lots of household textiles that she made.
My grandmother was also a woman who spent most of her elder years living in Montana, part of the time fairly rurally. Letters from her often started with lines like “Today I saw a mountain lion and her cub out the kitchen window…” or “While I was gathering clay from the banks of the stream out in back of the house…” or “I had a few weaver friends over today, and we’ll spending next weekend at the mall demonstrating spinning and weaving! I hope we get to teach lots of new people!”
Right now, I’m also looking at what my mother told me had been my grandmother’s “summer house loom” — the small loom she kept for weaving with when spending summers on a remote island in the Great Lakes. She gave the loom to her new son-in-law, my father, in 1970, when he became interested in learning to weave. I should probably note the “small loom” is a floor loom with a 36″ weaving width.
Oh and by the way… the folded up pieces of paper in that photo? Among them are receipts for the interchangeable needle set and add-on parts ordered, and for $70 of yarn in 1983, with a note in her handwriting that says “Family heirloom.”
My grandmother and my mother, in my grandma’s yard, wearing handknit hats
So yeah. I’m pretty sure that what I do today IS my grandma’s knitting. In lots of ways, in fact. And of course, it’s also my mother’s knitting.
Lots of things may not be obvious in this photo of my mother holding a 16th century icon, but the only stuff I really want to point out is that my mother sewed that dress (and had me practice embroidery on part of it), and she spun the yarn for the cabled sweater draped around her neck, which of course she knit. So yeah, it looks like this is also my mother’s knitting.
And actually, it’s my father’s knitting, too. It’s too sad for me to take a picture, but I have a small bag that I sometimes open and look at, and think about the contents. It was the bag in which he carried around his last knitting project, which he didn’t finish. They were gloves he was making for me when he succumbed to the cancer that killed him — colorwork gloves with a reinterpretation of one of my favourite Chinchero weaving patterns.
You know what else? It’s lots of people’s knitting all over the world. They look all kinds of ways and might be anybody. Like these gentlemen knitting while watching a presentation at the 2010 Tinkuy de Tejedores in Urubamba, Peru:
It’s also my great-grandmother’s knitting, by the way, as I was reminded when that same uncle passed on to me a pair of socks that were knit for him by my great-grandmother in the 1960s. And you know, that brings me to the next major point of peevishness about this whole “not your grandma’s knitting” shtick:
WHAT THE HECK IS THE MATTER WITH YOUR GRANDMA ANYWAY?
Seriously, I know a lot of grandmas, and lots of ’em are really quite cool. Some of my best friends are grandmas. And just yesterday I was thinking about my great-grandmother, who died while my mother was pregnant with me. I never met her, but I grew up on stories about her, and the ever-diminishing number of my relatives who did know her never seem to run out of those stories.
May Preston Jenkins, President, Women’s Suffrage League, 100 years ago
College educated, the eldest of 9 kids, a cigar-smoking, bloomer-wearing Suffragist, my great-grandmother is among the reasons I can do stuff today like “vote” and “own property and even a business in my own name,” things that she did AT THE SAME TIME AS SHE WAS KNITTING. Heck, you know what? My grandmother told me she remembered her mother taking her to see Red Sox games when she was a teenager… and both of them knitting on the T. That sure sounds like the knitting scene I know today.
So yeah. Not my grandma’s knitting? All I’ve got to say is, dude, you obviously know neither my grandma, nor her knitting. In fact, I’m willing to bet you don’t know anyone’s knitting, and the number one indicator that’s the case? It was when you said “this isn’t your grandma’s knitting.”
Next up, perhaps: I’m going to teach a yoga teacher to knit, so we can conclusively speak to the question of whether or not it’s “the new yoga.”
In retrospect, as recovery starts to happen, I think maybe the t-shirts should have read
I SURVIVED SOCK SUMMIT 2009
SOCK SUMMIT ATE MY BRAIN
or something along those lines.
Pulling photos off the camera, it looks like I…. hardly took any. Which, when I think back, isn’t that surprising. I managed to get a few Wednesday afternoon before things kicked off, and then a few on Thursday morning… and then pretty much never again.
How did this happen? Well… I’ve gotta say, it was intense. I’ve been to a few fiber events, worked a few conferences, and this was different from all of them. It was big, and filled with people, and totally inspiring, and exhausting, and delightful, and exhausting, and invigorating, and exhausting, and it was all of those things completely nonstop. There’s so much I’ve been swearing I was going to say…and so much I haven’t found the words for.
Here’s our classroom (and there’s a story about that):
Here’s Denny setting up:
Look how we didn’t block the fire exit rearranging the chairs they couldn’t put in a circle for us. We’re such good kids and unlikely to get in trouble with anybody’s dad.
We were conveniently located near the coffee.
Which was good because we needed oh so very much of it. We’d take turns standing in the line, which was not inconsequential… look, here’s a relatively empty lobby:
(You may not be able to tell, but as usual, Tina is right there in the center of it all making stuff happen, and if you were to turn your back, there’d be Steph, and if you were to turn your head or go around a corner, there would be Rachel, Debbi, JoAnn, or Lisa in all their orange-shirted glory.)
Anyway, so this one time I’m standing in the coffee line and Denny’s hollering “Oooh, I want the perfect oatmeal cookie! Buy me one of those!”
“Oatmeal, or the cookie?” I asked her. “There’s The Perfect Oatmeal, or an Oatmeal Raisin Cookie.”
“The perfect oatmeal cookie! It says right there!”
“No, that’s oatmeal. It’s not a cookie.”
“I want the perfect oatmeal cookie! That’s what I need!”
And I’m convinced this is the sassy magic of Mary Scott Huff that made this photo come out all fun like it did, plus you can see the shawl Denny gave Jen.
I can’t wait for Mary’s book, which should be on shelves just before mine. I haven’t seen the book — but I saw some of the projects and they were stunning, and Mary and I were cooking up an idea for a collaboration of some sort too.
And we totally made a Rubbernecker mod cry, and we have PROOF.
But as for the rest of it, apparently it didn’t happen. Why? Because there are no pictures.
So obviously, I didn’t really meet Sivia Harding first thing at the airport, on the shuttle to the hotel. I wasn’t at the teacher dinner when someone put a hand on my shoulder to steady herself as she raised her foot to show a sock to someone else… and I realized it was Barbara Walker. I didn’t really set down my bag at the dinner table the next night next to Priscilla Gibson-Roberts and come back to find it had been moved to another table, so I was stuck eating with Meg Swansen and Amy Detjen (among others). Denny and I didn’t really teach 150 students over 4 days.
Oh but! I did get batts there, and here they are in the wild at Carolina Homespun:
But I obviously didn’t go to the Sock Hop, or all kinds of other things. And obviously, I bought nothing at all in the marketplace, and this is clearly absolutely true, because I didn’t bring anything home. It is absolutely not possible that there’s a box on its way to me now that had to be shipped. Nope. No way.
If I ever get my brain back, there’s so much more to say. So very, very much. I’m completely thrilled and honoured to have been a part of it.
I originally wrote this in 2008, but have updated it annually ever since.
At this time of year, we seem to always have a huge crop of new spinners and would-be spinners looking for information about getting started. So I thought I’d take a morning and pull together an overall post linking to things I’ve written on the subject and various other resources too. What’s more, I’ve been spending part of my holiday fixing and updating old posts with current information, so you may find a few new things.
Bear in mind this is a list of information and resources for those who are brand new to spinning; I’ve tried to keep from going too far into the more intermediate or potentially esoteric stuff that could be confusing for a beginner. We’ve got plenty of space for that under a heading other than “Getting Started.”
1. What do I need to get started spinning?
I wrote a whole post about that entitled What do I need to get started spinning? — start there! You can do it with as little as $5-10. At a minimum, you’ll need a spindle and some fiber. You can make the spindle, but you’ll probably want to be sure you start with fiber in great condition.
How do you know if the fiber you’re getting is in great condition? That is tricky if you’ve never spun before! If there is a brick and mortar within an hour of you that sells fiber, you’ll probably learn tons just by going there and touching some things. If you can’t get to such a shop in person, there are plenty of shops online. I recommend doing your very first shopping with one that has a dedicated storefront website, rather than using a sales-hosting platform — not because there aren’t great vendors on etsy and similar sites, but because until you know what you’re looking for, it’s hard to sort through listings with confidence. Please note: once you know what you’re looking for and what you like, it’s a completely different story. But I’ve seen a lot of folks end up frustrated with their first purchases as they’re trying to learn, so it’s something I like to suggest.
3. Are there any books or magazines you recommend?
PLY Magazine is the must-have magazine. Founded by spinning teacher Jacey Boggs, PLY is a grassroots, community-driven magazine about spinning, and you’ll want every issue — they’re based around a common theme, so each issue is an excellent reference at many levels of expertise. You can also subscribe digitally.
Interweave Press’ Spin-Off Magazine is the “big name” in spinning magazines, having been around for 40 years, evolving from a grassroots publication to its present incarnation as a brand in the F&W Media empire. Despite no longer being the grassroots publication it once was, Spin-Off’s editoral team remains excellent and there’s an incredible body of information here.
Some excellent books when you’re starting out:
Start Spinning by Maggie Casey. Maggie is the owner of Shuttles, Spindles and Skeins in Boulder, and a spinning teacher par excellence.
Spin Control by Amy King picks up where Maggie’s book leaves off, and teaches you how to take control of your yarn.
Respect The Spindle is my own humble offering in the field, dealing with spindle spinning topics from beginner to advanced. This link is to the ebook for all your instant gratification needs, but it’s also available in print (and there’s a video, see below).
Spinning in the Old Way by Priscilla Gibson-Roberts is the canonical book about spinning with a high whorl spindle, and an excellent resource.
Start Spinning, The DVD from Maggie Casey is the perfect 2-disc companion to her book. This is also available for download.
Drafting: The Long And Short Of It, my first instructional DVD, is a more intermediate DVD that goes into lots of detail about various fiber options, multiple ways to spin your yarn, and how to fine-tune what you’re doing to get exactly the results you want. You can download this from Interweave as well.
Respect The Spindle: The Video is more or less one of my half-day spindle classes condensed to an hour in DVD form. It shows many of the techniques from the book, but also works fine as a standalone video. Like the others, it’s also available for download.
4. What about online sources?
There are tons! More than you can shake a stick at, even if it’s wrapped in yarn. I’m going to pick out a handful of online resources I recommend highly for new spinners, though.
One thing to bear in mind as you delve into the world wide web of spinny stuff is that as with anything online, there are good sources of information, and less good sources, and even sources that are filled with falsehood. It can be hard to know which is which. And whereas formal publication usually ends up being something done by people with a ton of experience in a given subject, casual publication like having a web site is something anybody can do. That doesn’t mean casual publications are bad — far from it! But it does mean, as a reader, that it pays off to spend a little time figuring out who’s giving you information, and what that person’s perspective is.
For example, my perspective is that of a spinning teacher and writer about spinning, who’s been at it for almost 40 years in a variety of contexts. I will obviously see things differently from someone who started spinning a couple of weeks ago. Does that mean you should only read one of us? Absolutely not; but it’s worth thinking about the differences in perspective or experience, as you read things. Consider: my experience trying a brand-new prototype spinning wheel is probably not going to be the same as a brand-new spinner’s. Which perspective you’re after is up to you. You may be looking for instruction (in which case I’d recommend seeing what an experienced teacher has to say), or you may be looking for a peer group as you start out on your spinning journey (in which case, you’ll probably be most interested in meeting fellow new spinners). One of the fabulous things about the online spinning world is that you can have all of those things.
KnittySpin is the spinning focused section of web pioneer Knitty.
Spin Artiste is always great eye candy, and I love the interviews.
Facebook features a number of spinning-related groups, among the most active of which is Fiber Artists and Yarn Spinners, with over 13,000 members. Also check out A Spinner’s Study on Facebook.
You can find all kinds of things — and share your own — with hashtags on all the social media sites that support them. You’ll probably never run out of anything to look at with #handspun, and if you use social media, sharing about your process is a great way to meet new people and learn new stuff yourself.
Starting late summer/fall 2017, I’ll be updating my own youtube channel extensively and regularly, including selecting the best videos I run across by other people and organizing them into playlists for your viewing pleasure.
As with web sites, videos on YouTube vary wildly in terms of the quality of information they contain. There are some reasonably well-produced videos that contain horrible misinformation. Wherever possible, try to take a minute and figure out where the video came from — someone who spends a lot of time spinning, or someone who started a week or two ago? The more folks sharing what they do, the better — but be wary of authoritative pronouncements from people who haven’t been spinning any longer than you have! In fact, I’d almost go so far as to say that most people making really authoritative, “This is how you do it” pronouncements, instead of saying “Here’s one way to do this,” are relative novices.
Why do I think this matters with videos? Because ideally, I think you should be looking at good spinning practice, or good form, if you’re looking for something to emulate and practice. If this was dancing or gymnastics, I would be saying you’re better off watching someone who’s been dancing for years than someone who just started and has never been to a class or performed or anything.
6. What are some great places to shop for spinning equipment and supplies?
Well, here are a few of my longstanding favourites. These are people who I can call up and say “Hey, do you have… or can you get… and is there anything like…” and who I trust with every fiber of my being (har har). These are the kinds of folks who you can go to with a dilemma and they’ll solve it. They’re the ones you can trust if you can’t make up your mind. These people are pillars of the larger fiber community. These are the people my family calls up to figure out what I should get for Christmas.
Carolina Homespun was my local shop when I lived in the SF Bay Area. If you are in that area, run, don’t walk, and then camp out and wait for Morgaine and Lann to let you in, if that’s what it takes. Make sure you visit them at every fiber show where you see them.
The Fold, better known as “Toni.” Not only does Toni Neil have an incredible full-service fiber shop — at least, I assume she does although I’ve never actually been to her shop, only her booth at various events, and dealt with her lots on the phone and in email — but she’s someone who Makes Stuff Happen. Like, she talked Jonathan Bosworth into making spindles. That kind of thing. I can’t say enough to praise Toni. I just can’t. She’s too fabulous.
The Spunky Eclectic is run by my longtime friend Amy King, author of Spin Control. I’ll put it this way: I call Amy up when I need a treat for myself, and can’t figure out what it should be. I place standing orders with her, and when there’s a new product on the market, she’ll know about it, have tried it, and have the scoop. And she can Get Things Done. When I have a task I know I can’t get to in time, I can count on Amy to do it to my standards and beyond.
If you’ve talked to that list of people, and they can’t find what you’re looking for? Then you can’t have it; it either doesn’t exist, is a treasure of rarity beyond compare and you have to hope someone’s leaving it for you in their will, or is backordered for however long they said. Seriously, if that list of people can’t make it happen for you fiberwise, nobody can. These are the folks you can call up in total chaos, confusion, despair, whatever — and they solve it, and give you a good deal besides.
7. Any other thoughts for a new spinner?
Just that, if there is any way at all for you to swing it, go meet other spinners. Take classes if you can, but even if you can’t or don’t want to, just meet other spinners. There are things about this that can’t be learned from books, videos, and so on. There are things that must be passed from one hand to another. You will get things out of a few minutes spent with other spinners that you can’t get out of years of spinning alone, even with the greatest references in the world. Spinners who’ve been doing this for a while make it look easy, and it is — with just a little practice. But in the beginning, just like riding a bicycle or playing a musical instrument, you might be surprised to find it’s not as easy as it looks. The good news is it’s also not that hard — it just takes practice, and within a month you can easily be making lots of great yarn.
Oh, and one more thing: this. Consider it a yarn manifesto, and enjoy.
That’s it! Please feel free to share your thoughts about being a new spinner, and any questions you might have, in the comments.
Updated as of 11 February 2015, to reflect the latest wheels on the market and latest pricing.
Choosing your first spinning wheel is somewhat like choosing your first car. There’s a level on which it doesn’t really matter exactly what it is, because it’s going to do the trick to get you started, and odds are it’s going to be a little while before you’ve refined your spinning and your ideals for your spinning to a point where you really know what your exact needs are.
HOW TO FIND A WHEEL
In some respects, the best spinning wheel to start out with is one that someone will let you borrow or rent; this is especially true if the person doing the lending is going to be able to spend some time with you in person showing you how it works and getting the ball rolling for you. If you have such an option, it’s an unbeatable first choice. You might be surprised at how readily you can find such an option, too: handweaver’s guilds and sometimes knitting guilds may have loaner wheels, and so may spinning teachers. Shops may do rentals and layaways. Experienced spinners may have extra wheels to lend out as well. At any time, I usually have at least one wheel out on loan to a new spinner — and often more than one.
The second best thing you can do is find a fiber shop or fiber show that you can get to in person, where there is a selection of wheels that you can try out, again with expertise handy to help you figure out how things work. This is what experienced spinners will generally tell a new spinner to do if at all possible — there are so many individual variables that it’s impossible for someone to be sure that what really works for one person will work as well for another person.
It’s not an absolute requirement that you find in-person assistance, but if you have never spun before, never seen anyone do it, and have no idea how wheels operate mechanically, it will make a huge difference to be able to get a little orientation. A few minutes with an experienced spinner can save you a world of frustration and possibly even prevent unnecessary damage to your equipment. If you absolutely can’t meet a real live spinner or do any in-person testing, don’t let that stop you from learning to spin — but if you have the option of going to a real full-service spin shop, or meeting with experienced spinners, don’t miss out. It’s an incredible leg up on getting started.
WHAT DO I NEED TO KNOW WHEN I GO SHOPPING?
Those things said, there are a few things to consider when you start wheel shopping, which a little advance thought about can really prepare you to get the most out of a trip to try out wheels. The first is your lifestyle: where, and when, do you expect to spin? Do you have a good-sized dedicated space that’s where you expect you will always be spinning, or are you uncertain? Do you want to be able to spin sitting on the sofa watching TV or visiting with other people? Do you think you’ll want to take your wheel with you from place to place, or travel with it? If nothing else, this can help you rule out choices because they simply won’t fit your lifestyle or your space.
The second thing to consider is if you have a sense of what kind of yarn you feel you’re most interested in spinning. Although a skilled handspinner can spin pretty much any kind of yarn on pretty much any type of equipment, the fact remains that different setups are not always best suited to the same things. Although the majority of modern “mass-produced” wheels are aimed at being multitaskers that can easily handle a wide range of things, if you know for certain that you have a specific interest that’s on one side of the spectrum or another, you might do well to choose a wheel that’s less aimed at versatility across the middle ground, and more tuneable for what you think you want to focus on specifically. If that’s the case, a good idea might be to contact people who you know regularly spin yarn like what you want to spin, and ask them what kind of wheel they use. Chances are spinners will be delighted to expound upon their wheel choices and give you all sorts of useful information that you can add to the pile of things to think about while you shop.
Most newer spinners shopping for a first wheel, however, are not likely to have complete confidence that they know exactly what they want to spin most of the time. In this case, it makes very good sense to choose one of the aforementioned multitasking wheels that currently dominate the spinning wheel market. In addition, many new spinners these days do not have ready access to a real live spinner who can help troubleshoot or answer questions or show things in person, and must rely on literature and the Internet for help. This can mean it’s a good idea to choose a wheel that many other people use, so help is just an email away, or even already present in searchable, archived mailing lists and forums on the web. Don’t discount how instantly you can find the answers to your questions by searching through past discussion! Chances are good that if you have a question, someone else had it first and it’s been answered. The Internet is a great resource.
NEW OR USED?
Used wheels can offer a great value, and with proper maintenance will retain essentially the same price value that you paid for it; if you decide you don’t like it after all and want to sell it, you’ll get almost all your money back. You can often get a much higher-end wheel used than you’d be able to afford brand-new; and sometimes, someone who is selling a used wheel will be selling it with a range of add-ons, accessories, and extras which they won’t be using anymore without that wheel.
However, as a new wheel spinner, it can be hard to know whether or not a used wheel is in good working condition and operating as it should. In some cases, people are selling wheels that have sat unused for a long period of time, often deteriorating or having pieces run off without anyone even realizing it. And sadly there are a handful of disreputable folks selling wheels that they know have problems, and such problems may not be apparent right at the outset. Consider, too, that you may not get much (or anything) in the way of documentation or manuals with a used wheel. You may be able to find such information online, but it’s not a guarantee, and even if you do, accuracy might not be 100% either.
WHERE TO LOOK FOR USED WHEELS
Don’t rule out a used wheel, but if you don’t have an experienced wheel spinner handy to help you evaluate it, or you can’t check it out in person, or you don’t really know the seller, be aware there are risks and potential frustrations that you might encounter with your purchase. Excellent sources for used wheels can be a local spinning and weaving guild (where you also might find rental or loaner wheels), local fiber or yarn shop (perhaps they’ve got a for sale bulletin board), and several online sources, such as the Spinners, Weavers & Knitters Housecleaning Pages, Facebook groups like All Fiber Equipment For Sale, and various for-sale and marketplace groups on Ravelry. Although there are often used spinning wheels on eBay, condition is a much more hit-or-miss proposition with those wheels than these two sources; and the same goes for the classified ads in your local paper, or your local Craigslist, where you might get very lucky, but you also might not. If you are able to make contact with other spinners via the Internet, ask them to take a look at online listings for you and give you an honest opinion before you buy. You could save yourself quite a bit of time, money, and disappointment.
A used wheel that isn’t in good working order can end up costing you more than buying new. This doesn’t mean there aren’t great deals out there, but don’t assume that $200 used wheel is actually a better deal than a $450 new one — it could easily cost you $250 to get it working again. Or more. If you aren’t sure, and you can’t spin on it, you may not want to take the chance.
That being said, if you do want to see about a used or antique wheel, I’ve made a video that covers just the basic things you need to check out to be sure it’s even remotely viable.
ANTIQUE OR MODERN?
Antique wheels, while often beautiful, will be subject to all of the potential down sides of any used wheel, in some cases multiplied over a longer span of time. They also may be incomplete and really being sold as decorative items rather than working wheels, and can be expensively priced because of that as well. Even when an antique is in good working order, another thing to consider is that such wheels were generally made to spin specific kinds of yarn, and aren’t likely to be strong multitaskers. They’ll also often make use of more complicated systems to operate, and finding replacement parts or someone who can do repairs can be a bigger challenge. Unless you have someone handy who knows a lot about old wooden machines (or you are such a person), as well as about spinning, an antique wheel could pose a significant challenge for a new wheel spinner.
Most modern wheels, by contrast, are designed with versatility in mind rather than being aimed at production spinning of specific types of yarn; they often use modern materials and design elements like sealed ball bearings which make for less maintenance, simpler systems, and more readily replaceable parts.
While antique wheels are often quite fabulous, they can also be a labour of love to get working and to care for, and that doesn’t always make for an ideal first wheel experience. Does this mean you shouldn’t let your grandmother give you her old spinning wheel? Absolutely not — see the first paragraph of this article, that says a gift wheel is almost never worth turning away, and this is particularly true if it’s a wheel with which you have a personal connection. However, bear in mind it might not be the easiest first wheel in the world, and you might not be spinning the yarn of your dreams on it immediately.
Here’s how I boil this down: unless you are a spinner, don’t buy a used wheel from someone who isn’t a spinner. It’s like buying a used car from someone who’s never ridden in a car. They may not even know if it’s a spinning wheel. In fact, experienced spinners sit around all the time talking about the unbelievable thing they saw on craigslist (or wherever) that someone thought was a spinning wheel, but actually, it was a lamp or a plant stand or an antique grinder for wheat. There’s many a would-be spinner out there who has been taken in by a SWSO, or Spinning Wheel Shaped Object.
SINGLE VS. DOUBLE TREADLE
The cold hard truth of the matter here is that it pretty much doesn’t matter. Both systems work well, both are implemented in a variety of different ways, and there are good ones and bad ones of either variety. If you happen to know (say, from having used a treadle sewing machine) that you really like, or really hate, one kind of treadle mechanism or another, you can take that into consideration — but barring a known physical problem that pushes you to one side or another of the debate, the bottom line is, this is a question of personal preference. Don’t rule out a wheel because it’s one or the other, unless you’ve tried it or you have firm and absolute reason that you must have one or the other (like you only have one leg you can use to treadle, or you have knee problems that rule out getting one leg very tired). As it happens, I have the latter issue, so most of my wheels are double treadle — but I do have at least one single treadle wheel which causes me no trouble at all because I can switch legs easily, so long as I remember to do so. I also have multiple double treadle wheels which can be operated with only one foot.
You can spend a lot of time thinking about whether you want single or double treadle, and the truth of the matter is, it’s not worth worrying about extensively in most cases, not for a first wheel. Let your gut decide.
SCOTCH TENSION, DOUBLE DRIVE, WHAT?
The short answer here, too, is that it sort of doesn’t matter, because as a new wheel spinner you don’t have preferences yet, and whatever you learn with is going to be part of what shapes those preferences, at least for a while.
The longer answer is that there are basically two kinds of systems for driving spinning wheels, and these are single drive and double drive. In single drive, the drive wheel is connected via a drive band to only one thing, a whorl connected to either the bobbin or the flyer. In double drive, your drive wheel (the big wheel) is connected via a drive band to both of those things. A single drive wheel has a drive band that is one single loop, and only drives one thing; a double drive wheel has a longer drive band that is in two loops and it drives two things — the bobbin and the flyer.
In order for a bobbin and flyer mechanism to allow yarn to wind on to the bobbin, both things need to be able to turn together at the same speed, and turn at different rates; when they’re turning in unison yarn isn’t winding on, and when they’re turning at different rates, yarn will wind on to the bobbin. Depending on the setup, and how you have things configured, the amount of pull you’ll feel on the yarn as you’re spinning is going to vary. So, all types of flyer wheels do offer some mechanism by which you can adjust this. On a double drive wheel, it’s generally adjusted by managing how tight the drive band is, which can be done in various ways. Examples of double drive spinning wheels include the Schacht Matchless, most antique Saxony-style wheels, and double drive Ashfords and Kromskis. Most modern double drive wheels can also be easily rigged as single drive wheels, operating in either Irish tension or Scotch tension mode (see below).
With single drive, braking action is applied to whatever item is not being driven by the drive band. If your drive band goes around a whorl attached to the bobbin, the bobbin is the thing that will start moving first, and this is called a bobbin lead system. In this case, braking action will be applied to the flyer, often with a leather strap that goes across the front of the flyer near the orifice. How tight this strap is controls how hard the pull is on your yarn as you are spinning. Single drive and bobbin lead with a flyer brake is sometimes called Irish tension. Examples of Irish tension wheels are most Babes, most older Louet wheels, and the Roberta electric spinner.
Single Drive (in this case, flyer lead or Scotch tension)
If, on the other hand, your drive band goes around a whorl connected to the flyer, then the flyer will move first, and the bobbin will follow after, and braking action must be applied to the bobbin in order to allow for wind-on to happen. This type of setup is commonly called Scotch tension. You can identify a scotch tension wheel by the presence of a separate brake band that goes around only the bobbin, often with one or more springs attached to it, and a knob to turn that tightens that brake band. Examples of Scotch tension wheels are the Lendrum upright, Majacraft wheels, the Louet Victoria and Julia.
There are good, and bad, implementations of all of these systems. For the purpose of talking about a first spinning wheel, though, I’m going to generalize a bit about wheels in more entry-level price ranges (which means these generalizations may not apply to someone’s $2500+ custom wheel). Double drive wheels have the most consistent pull-in, but are the finickiest to adjust. Bobbin lead single drive wheels have the easiest treadling action, but the strongest pull-in and it’s hard to get the takeup really really light. Flyer lead single drive wheels using scotch tension offer the easiest-to-change takeup settings that span the widest range, but can be fiddly and require a lot of minute adjustments as you go, particularly in low-cost implementations.
So what does this mean? In my opinion, if you know you want to spin a lot of fine yarn, go with double drive or scotch tension. If you want to spin more bulky yarn than anything else, go with bobbin lead single drive (irish tension) or flyer lead single drive (scotch tension). Yes, you can spin anything with anything if you’re a good spinner, but that doesn’t mean you have to, or that it must be your first choice. Spinning a thick, low-twist yarn on double drive can be frustrating and require more fiddling, and the same thing is true of spinning extremely fine with bobbin lead single drive wheels.
Just as an added consideration, any double drive wheel could, with relative ease, also be manufactured to include a scotch tension setup option, and there are a number of wheels on the market today which offer exactly that combination. These are extremely versatile wheels that offer a lot of room to grow.
WHAT ABOUT DRIVE RATIOS?
Drive ratios, too, affect the type of yarn you can easily and comfortably spin on a given wheel. For a lot more detail on this subject, take a look at my recent articles about drive wheel size and drive ratios, here. The short version is that bigger numbers in the drive ratios mean the twist gets in your yarn faster, which is great for fine yarns; smaller numbers mean the twist goes in slower, which is great for fat yarns. I generally recommend that new wheel spinners look for a wheel which can use a fairly wide range of ratios, as this is a key element in versatility, and one of the things about spinning with a wheel that really uses mechanical advantage in ways that broadens a spinner’s capabilities. Drive ratios are like gears on a bicycle or in a car; you want several, for different purposes, in order to get the most out of your equipment.
WHAT ABOUT BOBBINS AND ACCESSORIES?
Ah yes, bobbins and accessories! If you expect to spin a lot of 2-ply yarn, odds are you’ll want a minimum of 3 bobbins. If you are looking to spin 3-ply yarn, go with 4. When you’re looking at wheel prices, also look at what they come with in terms of bobbins, flyers, and any accessories — and price those out individually. You may very well find that some new wheel packages are significantly better buys than they appear simply by looking at the numbers on the total packages — they’re not all the same.
If you’re looking for a setup you won’t outgrow quickly, and that won’t send you back shopping for a few more things in very short order, I recommend either choosing a new wheel package that comes with 4 bobbins and a lazy kate that can hold 3 bobbins, or else buying an additional bobbin and a 3-bobbin lazy kate. Another accessory you’ll likely find very useful is a skeiner or a niddy-noddy, for making skeins from your yarn, which you’ll want to do in order to wash it and finish it and so forth.
Many (probably most) antique wheels will feature only one bobbin. This was common in the era where interchangeable parts were not necessarily easy to manufacture, and where each flyer and bobbin array is a meticulously crafted and matched set that should never be broken up. If you fall in love with a one-bobbin wheel, that doesn’t mean it’s a deal breaker; it just means you may want to invest in something additional, like a bobbin winder and some storage bobbins, in order to get the spinning setup you’re after, because you’ll have to wind off your spun yarn and empty your bobbin any time you fill it up.
By the way: Because there are such things as bobbin winders and cheap bobbins you can usually feel confident that you don’t have to have more than 4 bobbins. So this means you don’t necessarily need to worry if the wheel you love uses expensive bobbins.
WHAT ABOUT ELECTRIC SPINNERS?
In the past five years or so, there has been a surge in the popularity of electric, or motorized, spinning equipment. These consist of a flyer and bobbin array driven by a motor. Because there is no need for a large drive wheel or treadles, they can be made very small, and some can be driven by portable batteries in addition to being plugged into the wall.
Let’s address two common myths: first, that e-spinners are “cheating.” Seriously? Not any more than spindles are cheating because, unlike just using your hands, they give you a place to store yarn you’re making, and they let you set it in motion quickly to generate twist rapidly. An e-spinner won’t actually make it easier to make yarn; you still have to learn all the hand stuff. And that brings me to the next myth: that an e-spinner will make you faster. This is most likely not the case. Most e-spinners function in the same general range of possible twists generated per minute as most wheels do, and most contemporary spinners — certainly new ones — don’t spin that fast anyway.
One possible down side is that a lot of instructional content focuses on procedures like counting treadles, or adjusting ratios. Those aren’t relevant to spinning with an e-spinner, so you’ll have to find other sources of information or your own ways to deal with those questions. I don’t think this is a big deal; you also can’t count treadles with a spindle, but you can make a lot of yarn with one. A more likely down side is that most spinners subconsciously adjust a lot of things to sync their treadling speed with their hands, speeding up and slowing down without realizing it. E-spinners don’t have that capability unless equipped with a rheostat foot pedal, which still feels different, and so one of the things that can feel strange is the relentless, ceaseless steadiness with which they deliver twist. Some people simply do not like that feeling.
The really big down side to a lot of e-spinners? They’re not very quiet. This is a hard thing to work through, because in a lot of the settings where you might go try out an e-spinner, it’s going to be noisy and you’ll have a hard time telling if the machine is noisy enough to bother you or people sitting with you while you spin. One of the things that makes the pricier e-spinners pricier is that they are quieter; the top-of-the-line ones are very quiet indeed.
All of those things being said, e-spinners are the penultimate (which is to say, just shy of being the ultimate — What’s the ultimate in portability? A spindle, of course!) in portable spinning solutions, with many being the size of a shoebox, and that small size is enough to make them appealing to a lot of people. What’s more, because you don’t have to treadle to power the device, if you’re someone who has foot, ankle, or knee issues, an e-spinner can make it possible for you to enjoy spinning with a flyer setup. If you can’t sit and treadle for a long time, an e-spinner might be the answer you’re after.
This is a lot of information. Just tell me what I want.
Okay, okay. For a “you can’t go wrong” versatile, general-purpose first spinning wheel, I think you want one that offers the following:
a good range of ratios, or add-on kits that can extend the ratios you spin at
a scotch tension wheel, or double drive wheel that can be rigged for scotch tension
a wheel that either comes with multiple flyers and different sizes of bobbins, or for which that’s available
a modern spinning wheel, not an antique
at least 4 bobbins total, and a lazy kate or similar device to hold 3 of them
a wheel that you can try out in person and make sure you actually like how it feels!
So how much can you expect to pay for all these things? Used, it very much depends; $150-500 for a lot of entry-priced, very solid wheels with all accessories, in good working order, though there are custom and high-end wheels on the used market as well, which can be priced much higher.
WHERE SHOULD I SHOP?
Please note that the following prices on new wheels factor in costs such as tax and shipping; and on sale, it may be possible to find them a little cheaper. When shopping for a new wheel, I definitely recommend a new spinner try to purchase one from a full-service spin shop, ideally one close enough to go visit for service and support if necessary. Obviously, not everyone will have a local (or even local-ish) fiber shop, so if you don’t, I’d recommend mail-ordering from a great and reputable dealer who’s been in the business for a while and carries a wide range of products for spinning. Your dealer is your first line of support, and can make a huge difference for you. Even though I am a very experienced spinner and am regularly in direct contact with wheel builders, I still usually get my wheels, parts and service through a handful of dealers I’ve known for a long time. Those dealers with whom I have longstanding relationships know me, know what’s coming out on the market, and can always give me the fastest service and support that’s most tailored to my needs. What’s more, they’re available on a retail schedule, which wheel builders may not be.
WHAT CAN I GET FOR MY BUDGET?
Following are my picks for strong multi-tasking wheels in each price range.
New, for around $300, you can get something from Babe’s Fiber Garden. These are consistent and reliable performers made from PVC, you can get similar accessories and in some cases make your own, and they’re all but indestructible. They’re a great value, and Nels Wiberg, their maker, is a great guy who stands by his products. There is a strong and vibrant community of Babe aficionados who can provide you with a lot of advice about these wheels. Babe’s is transitioning to its new owners as of the start of 2014, and extending its lineup as well.
For around $400, you can get a Fricke S-160. These are durable, rugged, very versatile, quiet, and low maintenance. By default, they come with a delta orifice, but a standard tube orifice is also available. If you don’t know what that means, don’t worry — you probably don’t care yet, and won’t until after you have some spinning miles on your odometer.
For around $500, you can choose from offerings from Ashford (the Honda Civic of the textile world — everyone has one, or has had one, so everyone knows how they work, you can always find a used one and you know you can sell yours used too), and Kromski. In addition to its line of traditionally-styled wheels, Kromski offers the Sonata ($600-700), a folding wheel with sealed bearings for lower maintenance (priced higher, see below) and Fantasia (in the $500 range, less unfinished), a very competitive entry-priced wheel with sealed bearings and a modern sliding hook flyer, allowing you to fine tune how you fill your bobbins. Similar flyers are available now for Ashford and Fricke, most Louet wheels, and have been standard on Majacraft and Lendrum for decades.
The Kromski wheels are the most affordable “traditional-looking” and decorative wheels around, so if a historical look is important to you, these are in my opinion your best options. In this same price range, if super-mega-extreme fine yarn (and I mean as in the kind of laceweight yarn you use for a wedding ring shawl) is not an immediate interest for you, consider bobbin lead offerings from Louet, which are modern in design, durable, and much loved by their owners for their extremely strong performance and ease of maintenance. These wheels, such as the S17, S10, and S75 are icons of the spinning world — especially the S10, which is quite possibly the most indestructible wheel ever built, even without factoring in Louet’s superb lifetime warranty.
Perhaps the strongest offering to come on the scene in this price range in the past decade is the Majacraft Pioneer — fully compatible with all Majacraft accessories except the accelerator head, the Pioneer is an exceptional value in a wheel you won’t outgrow soon. I’d rate this wheel as the most versatile all-around option around $600, although it faces very stiff competition from Schacht’s Ladybug wheel — in fact, the only thing that makes me pick the Pioneer over the Ladybug is that Majacraft has a more varied line of accessories. However, Schacht’s accessories are incredibly well-designed and tested by a wide range of spinners, and they work beautifully for an extremely broad range of wants.
For around $700, an extremely popular choice is the Lendrum folding wheel, or a Fricke that’s been equipped with level-wind flyer and bobbins. New in the past couple of years from Schacht, the Ladybug is a terrific lower-priced sibling to Schacht’s venerable flagship wheel, the Matchless. Capable of double drive and scotch tension, and with all bobbins, flyers, and accessories entirely compatible with the Matchless, the Ladybug is a winner for any spinner at any level. Also in this price range you can get Louet’s Julia, a wheel with all the benefits of Louet’s experience and warranty and everything, in scotch tension.
So what’s my number one recommendation, supposing you just have to order something right this minute, and you can’t go try anything out, and you want to get the best bang for the buck? Well, it still depends somewhat on you. All around, The Fricke S-160, which of all the teaching wheels and student wheels I’ve owned over the years, is the only one I’ve kept, and the one I find most of my students get the most mileage out of the fastest, and keep the longest. The number 2 spot goes to the Lendrum, followed closely by a tie between the Majacraft Pioneer or the Schacht Ladybug, with Louet’s Julia rounding out the top 5.
Supposing the same thing, but adding in a desire for historical appearance combined with modern conveniences like interchangeable bobbins and add-on flyers, I recommend the Kromski Minstrel or one of their larger Saxony-style wheels.
Supposing you’ve no idea if you’ll like having a wheel and you don’t know how long you’ll keep it and you want to be sure you can destash it quickly, get the ubiquitous Ashford Kiwi, Traveller, or Joy, or look for one of these used. For my money, Ashford’s best value is in its workhorse Traditional wheel — many spinners have had a Traddy and nothing else for decades and they’re easy to keep running and get fixed.
WHO MAKES SPINNING WHEELS?
Almost nobody, in real life. Seriously — I’d be willing to bet there are more people who have recorded albums of classical music played on the kazoo than there are people who make spinning wheels in the 21st century. Even the largest makers of spinning wheels have fewer employees than a typical small town fast food franchise, and mostly, they’re family operations. In other words, there really is a Barry Schacht, a Richard Ashford, a Jan Louet, a Gord Lendrum, and so forth. So no matter what brand you buy, you can feel confident that you’re buying from a small, independent business. It just might be one that has been small and independent for 40+ years. But even the “big names” are mom and pop operations.
Longer-standing spinning wheel makers will have dealer networks who can supply you with service and support, and generally produce in sufficient quantity to meet ongoing demand meaning there will be wheels in stock at those dealers. Since they’re production items, that also means buying things like more bobbins, add-ons, or replacement parts will tend to be easier. What’s more, since there will tend to be large numbers of wheels out there from longer-standing makers, you’re more likely to be able to find support online from the extended community of spinners who will know how your equipment is supposed to work just from you saying “It’s an Ashford Kiwi” or what have you. They’ll also have had the opportunity to work out the kinks in their designs, which can be a really big deal for a new spinner who doesn’t know yet if problems are encountered with the wheel, the fiber, or the technique.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take a chance on a new maker if the deal is right (or right in front of you). It just means that, if you’re hoping to buy a wheel and ask the internet how it should work, you might be happiest being able to say “I can’t figure out why my Schacht Ladybug feels stiff to treadle,” and hearing immediately from a bunch of people who also have Ladybugs in front of them.
WHY AREN’T SPINNING WHEELS CHEAPER?
There’s a lot of stuff on a spinning wheel that takes attention to detail in order to make it work well. Yes, these are very simple machines, but they’re machines that have to work seamlessly in concert with a human being, and that’s not easy. There are many moving parts and wheels need to be quiet enough that you can stand to sit at them, or that other people don’t hate sitting in the same room as you. These moving parts also need to handle wear and tear and sometimes be replaceable or interchangeable with others. At first blush, many people think “How on earth can these things start at $400 new?” and I really get that it’s a lot of money to put out for a new hobby, which is the big reason why it’s common for people to suggest learning to spin with a spindle first — they’ll almost always be cheaper than wheels. It’s also why I recommend looking for spinners near you as a first move.
WHAT ABOUT BUILDING MY OWN WHEEL?
Spinners on a budget often ask if I’d recommend building a spinning wheel, potentially using some of the low-cost plans out there, as a way to save money getting a working wheel. My answer is always no — not if your goal is to save money. There are lots of other great reasons to build a spinning wheel, which could be a tremendously enjoyable and rewarding project. However, it’s a tricky one to tackle without some knowledge of spinning, wheel types and wheel mechanics, and some mechanical aptitude as well as general building / carpentry / woodworking skill. Even master woodworkers and mechanics have made spinning wheels that don’t perform well. A lot goes into building a good wheel. So, I wouldn’t generally recommend building a wheel from scratch in order to learn to spin, any more than I would recommend building a bicycle from scratch to learn to ride a bicycle. It’s just very hard to know if you’re on the mark, and once learning, hard to know if a problem you’re having is you or the equipment. This doesn’t mean it’s not a great project to do — just that it may not be the ideal way to get your first spinning wheel, and most likely won’t save you anything in the way of money if you’re looking at a flyer wheel.
What if the wheel plan you’re looking at is for a driven spindle? In that case, you may be able to do it very cheaply indeed — but you’re also going to get something entirely different from a flyer wheel. That’s not bad, but what draws a lot of new spinners to look for their first flyer wheels is the search for a shallower learning curve to achieve productivity than the handspindle typically offers. I love spindle wheels, and would never say one doesn’t make a good first wheel (actually, my first wheel was an antique great wheel) — but you should know it’s a different experience than you may be thinking of when you’re a new spinner considering a first spinning wheel.
A FINAL NOTE
The specific wheels I’ve discussed are all generalist wheels, multi-taskers, and I’ve left out serious travel wheels, specialty wheels, driven spindles, and wheels priced over about $1000. Price ranges given figure for paying tax or shipping and possibly an extra bobbin or something of that nature. I’ll cover wheels upwards of $1000 at another time, but generally set that as a likely ceiling for a first wheel purchase. Links provided are to wheel manufacturers or reviewers, and not to vendors; I strongly recommend finding a local fiber shop if at all possible, and giving them your support as well as making use of them as a resource.
If you have questions or comments about any of these wheels, I’d love to hear them — please don’t hesitate to leave a comment and share your experiences, or ask about wheels not mentioned here.
The short answer is this: you take a not-very-long length of spinnable fiber, and instead of presenting it end-first to be spun, fold it over. Instead of drawing fiber off the end of your supply, it now comes from the folded part in the middle.
Linda Diak from Grafton Fibers did a photo tutorial showing one take on this, and countless spinners have learned this concept thanks to her tutorial! Thank you, Linda!
You can see another approach at The Joy of Handspinning, down towards the bottom of the page in that link. This one features a short video.
If you’ve looked at both of these now, you will probably have noticed a major difference: Linda’s method drafts from the side of the fiber that has been folded over, while the one at Joy of Handspinning drafts from the middle of it. Linda is using wool top, and the Joy of Handspinning spinner is using silk sliver.
I sometimes like to use yet a third method. In both of the methods seen so far, a finger is kept inside the folded-over fiber. I often don’t bother with that.
Clicking on the image will take you to the Flickr! page where that tutorial starts (about spinning from a batt).
What all of these methods have in common is that the fibers we’re working with are presented to the twist sideways; when they’re spun up, they will basically be folded in half.
2. Why would you spin from the fold? What conditions (fiber, spinning style, time of day…) cause you to want to spin from the fold? How often do you use this technique, and why?
The list of reasons is quite long! The first set deal with the mechanics of spinning: many people find certain fibers easier to control with these techniques or variations on them. Slippery, long-stapled fibers may be easier to keep a handle on; short fibers may be easier to keep together and drafting smoothly. If you’re having trouble controlling a fiber when spinning it from the end, try it from the fold and see what you think.
Related to that, spinning from the fold may make some drafting techniques possible for a preparation of fiber that isn’t ideally (or theoretically) suited for spinning with those techniques. For example, spinning commercial top from the fold allows long draw techniques which are generally not as feasible when spinning commercial top from the end.
Third, the yarn you get spinning from the fold is often different from what you can get if you spin the same prep from the end. Why? Instead of being laid out straight and parallel, your fibers are folded over. All your fiber ends will be facing one direction in the yarn, instead of both directions — so you’ll get a yarn that’s a bit rough or hairy one way, and very smooth the other. You can get heightened halo and fuzz in your yarn, while it’s still smooth to work with. Also think about it this way: take a piece of hair, and fold it in half. It wants to straighten back out. Even if you’ve twisted it, it still has that tendency. So it is with the individual fibers in yarn spun from the fold; they want to straighten back out. This means you can maximize the extent to which your yarn will puff up after spinning, and get some loft in fibers that otherwise don’t have much, or get lots of loft in fibers which do tend that way.
Fourth, you get different colour effects spinning from the fold than spinning from the end. In a handpainted top with clear delineations between colour, where you actually have fibers that are half one colour and half another, having the fibers end up folded over in the yarn can make these distinctions less glaring, giving your yarn an effect of concrete colour changes that still have shading between colours, rather than a marled or barberpole look. Or if you have a fiber which has multiple colours running the long way, spinning from the fold can let you control the sequence of those, and keep discrete colour changes so you don’t end up with muddied colours.
Fifth, in blends where you have really different fibers, or widely divergent staple lengths, you may find it easier to make sure you are keeping the blend blended as you spin. Take, for example, a cashmere/silk top: if you spin from the end, you may find you’ve pulled out all the silk and spun it, while leaving the short-stapled cashmere piling up in your fiber supply hand. If you habitually hold your fiber supply rather tight, this is more of a risk than if you’re loose with it. Spinning from the fold, you’ll have things draft more evenly blended.
So, putting all these things together, there are several kinds of yarns I might spin this way. First, let’s say we’ve got some alpaca locks,
and I want to have them turn into a yarn with halo, spinning them right from the lock.
I flick the locks open,
fold them over,
and spin away,
using a short forward draw.
I smooth the spun yarn down as I go.
I spin two bobbins or spindles, and then rewind them, and then ply them, again smoothing the yarn down as I go. I now have a yarn with latent halo; it will come out while working with the yarn, but mostly after it’s in the finished object. The yarn is easier to knit with, possible to rip back with, but it’s going to halo like crazy when we’re done.
Or, maybe I have commercial 50/50 merino/silk top that I’d like to turn into a bouncy, springy, elastic yarn with a strong tendency to poof out and be full in the stitch. I spin this from the fold too, but using a long draw method, not squishing the air out of the spun yarn as it forms. I spin three bobbins or spindles full, then do a 3-ply yarn with lots of twist in the ply. I wash the yarn aggressively, fulling it with a hot-cold routine including agitation, and then let it dry unweighted. The result is yarn that is almost shockingly springy, even though silk has no memory. We’ve maximized the springiness the merino brings to the blend.
3. What types of fiber can be spun this way? What prep is best? Do locks work?
Anything that you can get into a chunk of fiber that you can fold over! You will get the most folded effect in the yarn, though, from locks or a combed preparation. A carded roving preparation has fibers going in many directions, and though you may get the benefits of greater control from using these methods, your yarn won’t seem as dramatically different.
You couldn’t use these techniques with loose fluff, punis, firm rolags, cotton from the seed, or line flax (unless you cut it). Anything else is fair game. Locks of long-stapled fiber are a pure delight to spin this way.
Really thin, really loose preps can be harder to spin this way, because there may not be enough fiber there to really get going. Pencil roving, or commercial tops that have been stripped a lot, are much harder to do this with.
Here’s a batt I’m going to spin from the fold soon:
4. Can you do it with a spindle??
Of course you can! In fact, I usually spin from the fold when spindle spinning, because I’m often on the go and just having a chunk of fiber is easier to deal with sometimes than having a long roving. Linda Diak’s example in the link at the top is using a spindle, as are the photos with the alpaca lock.
5. do you spin with it over your finger? or do you fold it and then just keep it in your hand like normal fiber?
It depends! If it’s a very very slippery fiber I might keep it over my finger (and might use the index finger or the middle finger). If it’s less slippery, I may just fold it and go. For some fibers, I almost just spin from the side, without even bothering to really fold.
6. how do you prevent the little loops at the top of the fold from popping out at times while you’re spinning?
Practice! 😉 From time to time, you may want to stop and rearrange your fiber to make sure it’s still smooth and cohesive. Sometimes the loops pop out anyway, and you just draft them out when they do.
7. do you need to loosen up the fiber a LOT when you spin from the fold? or is the normal roving split a couple times enough?
It depends on the spinner. Generally speaking, if we’re talking about commercial top, I absolutely do not split the top, and I definitely do not do any predrafting beyond giving the fiber a bit of a shake. Your fiber does need to move freely, but you don’t want it too loose and open, or you’re at risk of losing the flow. I just tear off chunks of the top at the width it already is, and go.
For some spinners, the fiber that really works best for this is a commercial top that is somewhat compacted. When I teach long draw, I often teach it spinning from the fold with commercial top. For a long time, I took only fairly loose and open commercial top; but then in a recent class, I also used some fairly compacted stuff, and to my surprise, the folks who had been having a tougher time getting a feel for the long draw with the more open prep just took off running and were brilliant with the more compacted fiber. So now I always take both.
I do this with fine fiber batts, like Pistachio here, which is 40% Merino / 40% Tussah Silk / 20% Baby Camel.
8. how do you spin super thin when you spin from the fold? (i’m having issues getting it thin enough with it being doubled over itself)
Once again, most of the answer here is practice. Try the variations: from the side of the fold, from the back of the fold, from the side without the fiber explicitly folded, holding it over a finger, not using a finger to keep it in place… you’ll probably find that different specific batches of fiber react differently to each of the variations, and that you find different things comfortable depending on the equipment you’re using and your preferred style of spinning as well.
In general, try loosening your grip on the fiber supply, and moving your hands a little further apart while drafting. This will probably allow you to draft the fiber out thinner.
9. what is spinning from the side of the fold? vs spinning from the fold itself?
Linda Diak’s example is from the side of the fold; from the back of the fold is more what you see in the Joy of Handspinning video. For most fibers, most spinners find it easier to do this from the side of the fold, but it really does vary depending on fiber, prep, and spinning technique.
10. What is your experience with spinning from the fold and how it affects the colors in a painted roving?
In a painted top where the separations are distinct, you can get much finer control of how the colours shade than you can when spinning from the end. In a striped one, you can choose to have a more heathered look, or a stripier look.
11. Whenever I try to do it, I spin from the fold for a short time, then it ends up going back to my regular spinning. Am I taking on too much fiber at once?
Most likely you just have well-developed habits and things that have become instinctive for you. You’ll have to catch yourself, and stop and rearrange your fiber again, to shift your habits a bit. It takes more time to develop the ability to switch techniques at will than it takes to develop habits in the first place. Give yourself time and be patient.
12. What does this do to the finished yarn? Worsted, woolen…something in between?
Where it falls on the spectrum depends somewhat on the preparation. If you have a combed prep or flicked locks to start with, you’re starting with a worsted preparation, and you’ll be spinning your parallel fibers so they’re just folded over. I (and a few other people, such as Judith MacKenzie McCuin) tend to refer to such yarns as being semi-worsted when they’re spun with a short draw and you smooth the air out. It gets more vague if you use a woolen-style drafting method like the long draw, though! Then you’re in a gray area where in my opinion the smart thing to do is describe the prep and the spinning technique and not try to give it a simple label. In those cases, I say things like “Commercial top spun from the fold using supported long draw.”
In fact, I usually tend to do that! The thing is, in my opinion, unless you’re getting really traditional and spinning handcombed longwools with a short forward draw (true traditional worsted), or spinning rolags one-handed on a spindle wheel (true traditional woolen), you’re somewhere in between. I like to use the terms mostly to describe the ends of a spectrum, and I view them as historical and theoretical for the most part — ways to talk about and classify various preparations and drafting methods. They’re important methods to understand, but the vast majority of all spinning falls somewhere between those two end points.
13. How do you add new bits of fiber when you’re spinning from the fold?
Whenever I do a join, I keep the twist moving, and introduce the new fiber to the twist such that the twist grabs it and puts it into the yarn, and away we go. That’s true for any join! Joining with moving twist is what makes for good, strong, invisible joins.
I don’t even stop spinning. Really! With a wheel, shortly before my first tuft runs out, I grab hold of the next one to go, and holding the yarn coming out of the orifice with one hand, still treadling, use the other hand to fold the next tuft and get it onto or into my supply hand. It’s like refilling the fiber supply, rather than doing a join.
Now, if the yarn breaks, or I’m using a spindle, then I get the fiber ready to go, and pick up the yarn where it’s stable and strong. I pinch off the twist and park and draft to build up some twist in the yarn; I like to think of this as a twist battery. Then I introduce the fold of the fiber to the yarn and let that stored twist leap across and make the join.
14. How tightly do you grip the fiber when spinning from the fold?
As tight as I need to in order to keep it from all being drafted at once, and no tighter than that. I keep my hands relaxed and fairly open. This is important to pretty much all drafting methods! Exactly how tight that is will depend. Most spinners, for the first several years, will often need to actively focus on grasping loosely and gently, especially when working with new fibers or new techniques.
If your grip is loose but fiber isn’t moving, try moving back a little bit with your supply hand.
15. I started spinning some Alpaca from the fold however it’s still extremely slippery and I’ve found much more difficult (for me) to control the width of the single. Any secret tips?
Allright, my deep dark secret here? Go faster. Speed up the wheel a bit! It’s like riding a bike: it’s harder to do slow than fast, for some of these techniques.
Some other things to try are either loosening your prep up a bit more before you start, or — believe it or not — tightening it up. Roll your fiber gently between your hands the long way, compressing it down more. Your prep is probably the main reason you’re having trouble with diameter control here.
16. So, first question is, just how on earth do you get started, once you have the fiber over your finger? With ordinary spinning, I have a looped yarn that I place the fiber on and give it a few twirls for strenth. But starting with the fiber over your finger just utterly buffaloes me.
The Joy of Handspinning video shows one way, but I don’t do that. I don’t use looped leaders in general. I either use a leader in which I build up a good head of twist and expect the twist to temporarily glue the new yarn to the leader as it starts, or use a doubled leader with an open end that can be opened up (almost like unplying) so I can put a smidgen of fiber inside the opened-up bits when it’s time to start spinning.
I get started, in general, the exact same way I do a join. No tricks, nothing fancy — just twist, and believing in it. It really works.
17. I have my first fleece, an Icelandic, and I was planning on spinning at least part of it from the lock. I’m a beginning spinner. Would spinning from the fold be the technique for this?
There’s no reason not to, really. Icelandic fleece is interesting, because it’s double-coated. When you spin it from the lock, you can keep both coats in the yarn and get a wonderfully lofty, long-wearing low-twist yarn. You can also manually separate the two coats with your hands much faster than you can using tools… but alas, I don’t have any Icelandic locks right now, so I can’t show you this wonderful trick I learned from Judith MacKenzie McCuin last year at SOAR.
I’d try several of these variations with a few of your locks, just flicked open, and see how you like it. I think it could make a wonderful thicker singles yarn done this way.
18. Often when I spin from the fold I find that I end up lopsided – that is, spinning from the end instead all of a sudden. Any way to address this?
Just stop, and rearrange. When this happens to me — and it does — I pull the part that’s starting to go lopsided off as soon as I realize that’s happening, and finish up spinning it. Then I rearrange the rest of what I had in my fiber supply, and do a join.
19. I spin from the fold when I spin silk on a spindle. I see some people use it all the time, with all sorts of fibres. I thought it was mainly for long fibres – why would one want to do it on medium sized wool for example?
It could be that they’re interested in one of the specific effects we’ve discused, or…
20. Ok, I have a poser – why, when I have been using the spinning from a fold technique, do I then want to spin everything from the fold? Ok, silk for me is a no-brainer. But then my fingers fall into this control rut and soon superwash merino, long alpaca and even very short baby cormo are folded over my finger. It is ridiculous, but true. I am mezmerized by the fine little spiral that comes off the finger tip. I wonder if it is a slippery fiber control thing? Any thoughts?
The same thing happens to me. Spinning from the fold was the magic that broke me out of my lifelong all-worsted-style, all-the-time mindset. I think this is inevitable, that sometimes the sheer hypnotic nature of the thing grabs you and you have to binge on something. I tell myself spinning from the fold is a cheaper and healthier binge than many other possible binges, so it’s all good.
I mean, so far, progress looks fine, right? And it keeps looking fine. Here’s 8 July 2007:
It’s 2 feet across! And even bigger by 9 July 2007, when I took it outside for photos to see if you could see the beads it’s acquired:
11 July 2007, with the help, who helped the ball of yarn too much:
But see the beads?
By 15 July, I was bitching and moaning about rows taking 15-20 minutes:
But by 25 July, I was clearly distracted and doing other stuff:
But then on 7 September, I said it was nearing completion. And in fact it was. That’s why I thought I’d have it done for SOAR. But that didn’t happen.
And then, honestly… I found I was enraged by the stupid shawl, staring at me from a wadded-up pile of beaded merino-tencel and a ball of rewound yarn and a little container of beads and an itty bitty crochet hook, mocking me for not just finishing it. I couldn’t bring myself to pick it up and spent the hour at a stretch it had grown to needing for EACH STUPID ROW with 800 zillion beads on it for the last repeat. It wintered on my desk, glaring at me and mocking my lack of stick-to-it-ive-ness. I know I flipped it off a few times. I even gave it the two-handed flip-off at least once. I really don’t understand why that wasn’t enough to teach it what’s what and go F itself (where F stands, in this case, for “finish”), but it didn’t.
About a month ago I moved it to the table by the slothing chair, where the Pagoda shawl rests in that one photo above, near kitten and beer. Surely no shawl could languish long there unfinished; perhaps my desk was just not the right place, as I never have an hour at a time free (or free-ish) when I’m at my desk. And that move has helped. On several occasions since then, I have forced myself to work on the thing. About an hour plus a few minutes for each beaded knit row; 30-60 minutes for a purl row, depending on how densely beaded the preceding knit row was.
Allow me to show you, briefly, the sight which has enraged me so with its mockery lo these long months.
By last night, I’d reached the point where I said — and yes, I said it, out loud, multiple times, to the whole family — “I hate this stupid project! I’m so sick of this! I was sick of this last fall! Well I’m forcing myself to finish it! I can’t have a beer till I get to the stopping point I’ve set for the night! No beer till I finish this row! I’m half an hour into the row and I want a beer but I can’t have one! I hate this shawl! Watch, I’ll finish it and it’ll be a huge piece of crap. Man, I want a beer…”
When I got to the end of the row, the manchild stopped building things with K’Nex, and ran to the fridge and returned with a beer. Now that’s a good kid.
So now I’m on the horns of a dilemma: how to handle the beaded cast-off I have envisioned.
See, those leaves each need a bead at the tip there. The beads are like, uh, they’re like drops of dew. Falling of this cheesy, annoying, pissing-me-off-to-no-end stupid project from hell which is probably going to be total crap when I’m done, because even though really, it’s okay right now, I’m bound to thoroughly screw up the beaded cast-off somehow. You know, once I’ve figured out what I think I mean by “beaded cast off” in the first place.
Maybe I should put a fringey tassel with beads on it at each leafpoint.
When I block it, are the leaves going to be the only points, or will there be intermediate points in the dead space between?
What if I did some sort of crochet chain with beads in it for a cast-off, ala Marianne Kinzel except, as noted, with beads?
Of course, my wiseacre alter ego (okay, that’s my real ego, not the alter ego) is sitting in the back of my mind saying, “What if I threw this across the room and left it there another year?”
I have leftover yarn. I could do whatever the heck I want.
But no, I can’t leave it unfinished for another year, tempting as it is. I’d never be able to look myself in the eye knowing I’d left it with nothing needing to be done except binding off.
Maybe a sewn bind-off. With a knotted fringe with beads on it. Nah, that would look stupid.
So, yeah, this is the dilemma. I can’t decide what to do. Yet tonight, when my work day is over and I sit in the slothing chair, there the project will be, demanding that I finish it. And finish it I must. I want to see how it came out, I think I want to wear it, I want to be blocking it… but most of all, you know, I just need closure with this project (and then to not look at a bead again for a while).
So throw me a bone, O loyal readers. Speak to me of bind-offs and send me some moral support and tell me I’ll make it. Make fun of me if you must, and manipulate me into finishing the thing one way or another by forcing me to channel my rage into a spurt of amazing finishing energy. Light a candle for me in prayer that the shawl won’t be awful. Amuse me with a funny story of your own vicious beaded project like this. Something! Help me not succumb to my baser instincts and throw this back in the UFO pile hoping it’ll solve itself.
P.S. Don’t tell my dad I haven’t finished this yet. He’d never let me live it down.
When I said the next post up in the sock yarn series would talk about colour, Sara playfully asked:
colour?? colour? Of what do you speak? Are you *that* close to Canada that u’s have infiltrated??
There are quite a few ways to address this, such as reminding Sara that I’ve never known her to avoid Canadian contact, and that’s not a bad thing at all. Indeed, some of my favourite fiber folks are Canadian (and probably yours too!) But well, yes, there is evidence of Canada invading Ohio. I could go on at some length about this evidence — there’s plenty — but the really telling piece is simply this business listing in the Yahoo! yellow pages.
That’s right, folks, there is a Tim Horton’s within 10 miles of my home (or do I mean within 16 kilometers? Nah, the invasion is still not complete). Indeed, there are a dozen Tim’s in a 25-mile radius. So there’s no way this is a coincidence, any more than that Tim’s in Afghanistan is a coincidence. I haven’t seen Canadian troops… or have I? How would I know? Hrmmm. Perhaps they’re responsible for the periodically suspicious niceness I keep encountering. Perhaps they’re the reason my Kroger has been sold out of Wasabi-Soy almonds for the past 6 weeks or so — Denny may be sending them down after nuts, and leaving none for me.
But in any case, Sara, the bottom line is that for reasons I can’t pin down, I have always apparently been a Canadian speller. I do enjoy the use of colour, but I realize (instead of realising as our friends across the pond might do) that in the fiber arts (not fibre arts) we often use it somewhat haphazardly. So in this bit about spinning for socks, we’ll talk about using it in planned ways, in the spinning stages, rather than in the dyeing stages. And I think we’ll do it using some fiber that came my way via some Canadians — Southwest Trading Company’sKaraoke, now distributed by Louet North America, a 50/50 blend of merino and soy silk. It comes in white, and three predyed handpainted colours; we’ll be working with the colours today.
These colour techniques work with any multicolour top or roving, and can be extended to work simply having multiple colours instead of a handpaint (in which there’s one top or roving with different colours on it in sequence) ; we’ll have a few examples of those as well.
Well then, let’s get to it.
There are a couple of interesting things to point out about this fiber. I know, it looks like a mish-mash of contrasting colours in a random placement — but it isn’t.
You may need some floor or a counter to spread things out on to see it, but there’s order and a clear colour sequence. You can preserve this and depend on it when you’re spinning, and (lest it not be obvious) make choices like this when you handpaint your own fiber as well. This is convenient for socks if you want to more or less match up the colour shifts between both socks. Start by lining up your fiber into two like parts, as you see above.
Once I’ve lined the colours up, you can see there’s some fiber that comes after the end, or before the beginning, of the full colour sequences we have laid out. I broke off this excess, and set it aside for later. You can also see that what I have is two folded pieces of top, right? And the ends are in either extreme of the colour sequence. Hrmmm.
Solved! Now I have four similar lengths of top where the colours are all pretty neatly lined up the same. Some of you, I’m sure, have already seen where this is going. These aren’t totally identical lengths, but hey, they’re close enough for government work. That’s right — government work on self-striping sock yarn! Hey, it could happen.
So now let’s divvy this up further. I’m going to take the top one, and the third one, and put them together; and then I’m going to take the second one, and the bottom one, and put them together. Each of these pairs will become an individual skein of two-ply yarn. Here’s what we do:
1. Start at the blue end of length 1, and spin it onto one bobbin.
2. Start at the blue end of length 3, and spin it onto another bobbin.
3. Ply these bobbins together.
4. Repeat steps 1-3 using the remaining 2 lengths.
5. Admire your results.
Now, if you look closely, you’ll see places where there’s one ply of blue and one ply of yellow, or one ply of yellow and one ply of pink, or just in general, places where the colours don’t like up perfectly. Click here for the honkin’ huge version of the photo if you need to look closer — there are sticky notes on it to point out these marled (or barberpole, depending on your terminology preferences) sections.
Yes, you could have made them line up more closely by using fiber lengths 1 and 2, and then fiber lengths 3 and 4; but if you had done that, would you have had two skeins that matched as closely? Nope. But, maybe that’s what you wanted, instead of having marled sections. The choice is yours!
Well, allright then. What if you didn’t have a handpainted fiber with that clear and consistent colour sequence, but you still want to pretty much match things up? Don’t despair! This is a great example of a time when you might want to split your top.
Now I have two narrower strips where the colours do line up. I can split these again, and follow the first set of instructions… or, you know what? I could just spin singles from these two, and chain ply.
I pulled tufts off the end here, which I then spun from the fold, muddying up colours a tiny bit. Then I took those bobbins of singles, and chain plied them (some folks call it Navajo plying). Paimei helped.
Good thing we had that snow day so the manchild could snap these photos.
The chain plied example is at top; at bottom is our prior two-ply yarn.
So why would I chain ply anyway? Well, I’m going to be assured of almost no marled areas. My colour transitions are going to be clear-cut and definitive.
It’s also fast, uses all the yarn, never requires lots of extra bobbins, and works to preserve colour shifts even where they’re vague. In other words, I chain ply for reasons of speed and expediency, and for specific colour reasons. I don’t do it for structural reasons (unless we’re talking about using a chained single instead of a plain ol’ single), but we’ll take about that in a later article.
A chain-plied yarn has essentially the appearance of a 3-ply yarn. For most knit applications, it’s indisinguishable from a 3-ply and the structural differences truly are immaterial. If you’re looking for crisp colour shifts, it’s likely what you’re after.
At first glance, the two yarns above — yes, it’s two yarns, from two different colourways — seem incredibly similar, and close enough to match each other gaugewise and everything. And that’s true. But the blue-green-purple at left is a chain-plied yarn in “Mermaid,” while the one at right is a true 3-ply in “Rainbow.” Observe…
I spun the “Rainbow” fine, blurring the colours a little (we’ll get to that) and here’s a bobbin of single. I did three such bobbins, after splitting a length of top in thirds — just like how I did it above splitting it in half, only I split it into rough thirds. Since it can be hard to eyeball that kind of thing, the colour shifts didn’t line up particularly well once it came to plying.
See? We’re getting some marl effect happening. But you know…
…I kinda like that.
Yeah. Yeah, there’s definitely lots of marling, and it’s a 3-way effect, not just 2-way. YOu can see it wonderfully on the left side of the photo.
Now, you can get marling with chain plying too.
See? This is that same chained single, and you can see that the single has some barberpole effect, and then so does the ply.
Let’s back up a tiny bit, by the way. I almost forgot to say that there is no reason you have to preserve colourways. We’re just talking a bit about how you can. Observe…
At left, our colour-preserved yarns; at right, a 2-ply yarn in which I did nothing whatsoever to make two bobbins line up colours or what have you. That’s right — nothing. In some places it did, in some places it marled, and it’s all totally random. This works very nicely with analogous colour combinations (that’s when, if you were looking at them on a colour wheel, they’d be right next to each other — as Beth would say “more blendy!”) But results can be more startling and perhaps less pleasing to the eye if you’ve got a colour combination with stronger contrasts.
Well, so what if we don’t have a handy-dandy space-dyed or handpainted fiber? What if we have, say, three fibers in different colours, and we’d like to get them all in there?
You know, like these guys.
I can just take the ends, and spin from them going straight across. That’ll preserve the colour shifts cleanly, or…
I could also press them closer together, and draft from the end a bit, creating a bit more blurring. I could predraft these together, too, and then spin the resulting fibers.
So what if I find myself getting just one colour coming out?
Yeah, that can happen. So I’ll just stop spinning that colour, and break off…
Then I can just start spinning again from a different colour.
You know, I can do this from the fold as well.
I don’t have to leave my finger in there — once it’s drafting, it’s good to go.
I’m going to get blue, then white, then grey, and in between, the colours will blur from one to the next. And then I can chain-ply if it I want to preserve that colour sequence, which I can also make up as I go along. I mean, I can just grab whatever fiber I feel like, and spin a bit.
You know, there’s something useful about doing this on a spindle, too. If I want to be confident that I’m getting the same length of yarn each time, I can be pretty sure of that with a spindle, because the lengths I’ll spin between wind-ons are likely to be similar. So I might spin two wind-ons each of blue, then grey, then white, then blue, then grey, then white… and then do that again for a second single… and then ply those. That’s going to be some very closely aligned 2-ply self-striping yarn.
You can do that on a wheel, but it’s harder to track than it is with a spindle. This is also a great way to use up odds and ends of leftover fiber, and make them into a striping yarn.
Okay folks, there’s one other thing to let you know about the fiber I used in these examples, in case you’re going to use it too.
Oh boy. That looks bad, doesn’t it? Well, I have to say, this is something I’ve encountered with soy silk (and remember, this fiber is half soy silk). I think it’s particularly pronounced here because this is a blend, and the dye exhausts at different rates. What seems to have happened is that a bit of excess dye has piled up in the soy silk; it’s exhausted from the dyebath but it’s not fully bonded to the fiber. Well, synthetics can be a bit tricky to dye. You can do a few things about this.
I discovered the problem when I went for the hot-cold fulling wash — you know, the “Judith Says” wash, of which I’m also a proponent. I encountered it a few minutes after starting the super-hot soak. Once said soak was completed, I rinsed in super-cold water, till the water ran clear. Then I repeated the super-hot soak, and less dye came out. Again, it rinsed clear in the cold, and there was no dye hitting the other colours in the yarn, thankfully. I gave it one more super-hot soak, and it was clear. I wrapped up with one more cold soak and the ol’ beating of the yarn.
and here’s after.
If you’re going to do the abusive wash, this is a good way to deal with excess dye. In fact, the possibility of excess dye is another good reason for the abusive wash, when you get right down to it. Wouldn’t you rather know now, and be able to take steps to do something about it now, rather than after you knit socks and then washed them in with some other clothes or something? I know I would.
Excess dye, while not ideal, is a fact of life. Blues and reds are the most common culprits (and blacks, but those are often dyes which contain blues), and man-made fibers are by and large more prone to dyeing peculiarities in non-industrial processes, at least in my experience. While every dyer at any scale of operation makes every attempt to avoid having any such issue altogether, sometimes it’s not entirely possible to address it at one given stage rather than another, and sometimes you can’t even spot it until you reach a specific stage. Fiber is a particularly vulnerable stage of things, especially if you’re talking about a blend of a fine, easily felted fiber such as merino and a more resilient man-made fiber such as soy silk; you can really ruin fiber by subjecting it to a treatment like the one I use for finishing yarn. And sometimes yarn is too vulnerable, so you need to solve the problem in the fabric or the garment stage. Plus, sometimes you encounter it in storebought clothes! So, what’s a textile nerd to do?
I keep Synthrapol on hand. If I’m in doubt, I do a cold wash with Synthrapol — and I do it with off-the-rack clothing of certain types as well (say, blue jeans). So what’s this product I’m talking about? Paula explains it really well. Honestly, I believe this is a product that has a place in the household of even the textile non-geek; it’s there to keep you from turning the whites pink by accident, and so on.
Other than my abusive removal of excess dye, other than a wash with Synthrapol… you know, sometimes things really are HAND WASH COLD – DRY FLAT. That’s often partly because of industrial processes not doing what they could potentially do to eliminate any running issues or what have you, but sometimes it really is the best idea. There are many variables; to be sure you know what will happen, this is a reason why I like to recommend testing by spinning samples, finishing them, swatching them, and then subjecting the swatch to the care intended for the finished object. It’s sort of the yarn or fiber version of pre-shrinking your yardage of fabric before you cut your pieces for a garment that you’re sewing. It’s a good idea.
Anyway, back to the sock yarn.
Top: chained single. Bottom: 2-ply. At first glance, the same yarn — right? But they aren’t. We’ll talk more about that in part 3 of this series, Structure!
The manchild’s cough kept waking his parents up all night, and his room is at the far corner of the house away from ours. Even before we fully woke up, I think we realized he wasn’t going to school that day. And then, of course, one quick look out the window suggested that, even if he miraculously recovered within the next 30 minutes, we weren’t going to be seeing school buses soon. I got him up, shuffled him downstairs, and parked him to watch the TV news while I made him some hot tea.
He stayed watching it, eyes glued to the crawler, hoping against hope that “2 HOUR DELAY” will turn to “CLOSED.” Personally, I doubted it would — the snow was slowing down and we’d only gotten about an inch — but the truth is the point was moot. He wasn’t going to school that day.
The same could be said for me, however! I might even ultimately be braving the great outdoors. Certainly not before lots more coffee, though, and certainly not with wet hair and no hat (my mother would kill me if I went outside with wet hair and no hat in this weather). As a littler kid, I’d just comply, though by my teens, I wouldn’t be caught dead in a hat, particularly not a handmade one. At our home in New Hampshire, in an bushel basket by the door there was a seemingly limitless supply of hats, gloves, mittens, scarves and the like. We needed that many, of course, because of the following types of events:
Wretched daughter wears hat to school in the morning. In the afternoon, she forgets hat and it stays at school. The following morning, when it’s time for said wretched daughter to head out to wait for the bus, another hat must be found.
Hat simply cannot be found. It must be on the school bus.
While building a snow fort, mittens and hat became incredibly sodden, and are still steaming dry over near the woodstove.
One mitten or glove has gone rogue. It probably happened outside, and it’s definitely snowed more since then. We won’t find that till spring.
Despite all due care and the following of routine best practices for handling of woolen winter wear, that hat which fell in the driveway, was run over by the car, frozen into a solid plank, then brought inside and carefully thawed and then dried by the woodstove, has shrunk.
I can’t wear that hat. It’s pink. Make Molly wear it. She likes pink stuff. (Alternatively, Molly’s version: “I can’t wear that hat! It’s brown! Make Abby wear it, she doesn’t care as long as it isn’t pink!”)
Some random person came to the house, hatless, and now plans to leave… thus going outside without a hat. This cannot be allowed.
I made hats back then. There were knitted hats and crocheted hats. My mother made hats, there were hats my grandmother had made, hats that came from the hands of my mother’s aunts, hats of scratchy wool, hats of the finest materials you could imagine, hats of handspun, colourwork hats, hats that matched mittens and gloves, just every imaginable kind of hat (not to mention all the mittens, gloves, and scarves). Even though items from that basket would be lost (totally normal winterwear attrition — these things just happen!), it never seemed like the supply got any shorter. Perhaps that’s because, apparently, in my family we have a multigenerational tradition of simply making winter woolens at random. Or perhaps it’s to do with wearing hats when it’s cold.
As I was writing this, I said to myself, “I bet my mother still won’t let anybody walk outside in the winter without a hat.” So I called her up to ask.
“So I was wondering,” I told her. “You remember the huge basket of hats and gloves and mittens and everything, by the door?”
“Of course,” she said. “In case anybody was going to go out without a hat.” I explained that I was in the middle of blogging about just this fact, and needed to confirm — “Oh! Well, we don’t have it in a basket anymore, but the hall table with drawers and everything is still full of hats, absolutely. And you know, there are some really nice hats in there that nobody’s wearing much right now.”
I told her I remembered the hats and mittens all being handmade; she said this was, indeed, pretty much the case, although nowadays, you’d likely find a few oddments of polar fleece and so forth. “You know what’s a shame,” she said, “is that nobody wears some of my favourites. For example, one of the nicest is that Afghan hat of Ed’s.” We had to discuss that one a while till I was sure which hat that was. “You know, it’s from a heavy twill of some sort, it’s about a foot long and you roll it up…” Then I had to google around for one. Turns out it’s an Afghani Pakol. Indeed, a very nice hat.
“So another thing I was wondering,” I told my mother, “is if, when you were growing up, your mother also had a huge basket of winter woolens.”
“You should call her up and ask,” she suggested. I agreed, and asked if my grandmother had been in on the plot to make sure nobody went outside without a hat on, and what about my great-grandmother? We discussed the problems that are purported to occur due to lack of a hat, or injudicious going outside in the cold (like, you should smile when you do it, lest your face freeze in a frown), and then with a sigh I went to inform the lad he wasn’t going to school regardless. At least he wasn’t missing out on a whole snow day, I told him. He didn’t much care — proof of illness, to be sure.
I must not have made him a good enough hat this year. And even though I churned out probably a half-dozen hats, I still seem not to have one, and I haven’t replaced my better half’s hat from probably 2003. Two hats went to a swap (it was going to be one, but then I wasn’t sure I liked it, and then I got my hat from the swap (for which mine was late) and it was really nice, so I made a second one). Then there’s the manchild’s hat for the year, which I ended up really liking the design of, and re-making in a languishing skein of merino/silk/angora that I’d had lying around… only to decide when all was said and done that the hat was fugly in that yarn, but hey, I’d had the yarn waiting to be used for several years, so at least now it was a hat. So then I started thinking, “You know, this would be a perfect hat to use up that one random skein of millspun space-dyed alpaca that looks like 1970s airline upholstery, but I like it in spite of myself,” and got started making one with that. And that looks great… but the circular needles I had in that size were killing my hands. Therefore, the hat is now sitting half-done next to my comfy chair. Which, I’ll add, is where the yarn is that I should be finishing the cable ply on so I can replace that 2003 hat. And then there’s the “no, really, this one is good enough” version of the manchild’s hat… which is presently the one being worked on, creating a swatching backlog for some other things. Seriously. Plus the colourwork hat I finished, hated, ripped, and restarted.
I guess that the only thing I can really say for all of this is… well, two things. One, I used up some random skeins of yarn that have been taunting me for years. And two, they’re now hats for the hat bin. I’m on my way to growing up, I guess — to taking my place among the matriarchs of my lineage, as the owner of a vast bin of hats, most handknit or crocheted, the majority of those handspun as well.
I can’t help but wonder if my son’s going to need a hat bin when he grows up.
Socks are a great way to use your handspun yarn, and a great way to push your boundaries in spinning and acquire new skills. A pair of socks isn’t a huge and unwieldy project, and the commitment to knit them isn’t tremendous — but they’re varied and versatile. There is no one canonical way to make socks happen, no single set of attributes that make for the ideal pair. As a wearer of socks, you probably have several types — and if you’re a knitter of socks, “several types” may be an understatement. Those things said, though, we can make a few generalizations about socks.
1. Socks must stretch sufficiently to allow them to be pulled on over wider parts, and then once in place, settle down and fit snugly without leaving excess fabric to bunch up and get uncomfortable.
2. Socks are a structured, fitted garment; they need to retain that structure in order to work well as socks.
3. Socks are ideally not itchy and scratchy. Nobody likes to have irritated feet.
4. Socks need to be able to breathe; hosiery which doesn’t allow for air movement can compound, or even cause, all sorts of discomforts and woes.
5. Socks are commonly worn with shoes. In fact, it could be said that socks function as an important buffer between foot and shoe, protecting both from interacting in such a way as to potentially damage each other (say, by keeping shoes from chafing or blistering your feet, and keeping skin oils and so on from piling up in your shoes). As such, socks are subject to wear and tear often not encountered by other fitted garments.
So, then, we need sock fabric to be stretchy, but still bounce back; stable enough to hold its structure; not itch or irritate, and allow air and moisture to pass through; and we need the fabric to be able to take a beating from friction.
To address the first elements — stretchy and bounces back — we choose a knitted fabric, or sometimes a crocheted fabric, over a woven one. Knits are, by and large, the stretchiest fabrics. Knitting or crochet allows us to address structure by using numerous different sock designs, shaping that fabric as we create it, incorporating the structural elements into it from the ground up, rather than by cutting and seaming as we might with other fitted garments. Doing this creates a finished product which doesn’t have the same weaknesses as a garment whose structure and fit come from cutting fabric and seaming it up, and this helps with our final point about taking a beating.
In between those things, we have a lot of room to play with materials in order to address points 3 and 4 — not being scratchy, and being breathable and comfy. If we’re looking at commercial sock materials from the mill, we now have an incredible range of options, sock yarns of every imaginable variety, yarns that aren’t billed as being for socks but make great socks anyway, luxury fibers, rugged fibers, blends, you name it. The modern day is a sock yarn buyer’s paradise. So why, then, would we want to bother spinning our own sock yarn? Especially, some might say, when we know that these are going to be garments that will be subject to lots of wear and tear. Why not just buy sock yarn and be done with it? Why invest the time?
Well, here’s the thing. When it comes to producing yarn, absolutely nothing is faster than the mill. But that doesn’t mean what the mill produces is actually better — it’s just faster to produce, viable to sell in large quantity, and thus readily available and easy to replace, and as a final result, cheaper. It definitely saves you time to simply buy sock yarn.
Of course… it would save you even more time to simply buy socks. And you know, that might be good enough — in the same way it might be good enough to buy a ready-made birthday cake already decorated, or a shirt that fits great except for the sleeves being too long (but you just roll ’em up so it’s not a big deal). Truly, it is good enough, which is why most people do, in fact, wear machine-knit, mass-produced socks.
This is where my mother would point out that her father never did; he would only wear the socks my grandmother knit for him. Mere storebought socks, he insisted, were a clearly inferior product. Mass-produced socks wouldn’t fit just right, wouldn’t wear well, suffered premature structural failure due to cost-cutting measures like seaming up toes instead of grafting, and weren’t even really worth repairing given the quality of materials, the likelihood of repeated failure, and the frequency with which repairs would be required.
You have to understand that my grandfather, a Cold War era nuclear physicist, was the kind of guy who took a methodical and scientific approach to everything in his life — I have no doubt that he performed extensive and rigorous testing in order to reach these conclusions, likely even documenting his process and presenting his evidence to my grandmother when determining he’d only wear handknit socks. This was a man who explained his beliefs about table manners to me with a discourse on the economy of motion as applied to eating. If you knew Clark, you knew that if he made an assertion, you could take it to the bank.
But I digress! I’ll take it as a given that those of us reading (or writing) this piece will accept handknit socks as high-quality and worth making and wearing. By extension, then, it is reasonable to propose that handknit socks should be made with the absolute finest of materials — at which point we must question whether mass-produced yarn is, in fact, the very best thing available for socks. My grandfather would tell me that I need to draft, then conduct, an experiment using good scientific method, then make my findings available for peer review, in order to determine this for sure, but I’m going to make simple assertions based on my own body of anecdotal evidence instead.
I said earlier that you can’t beat the mill for speed and volume. And that’s true; you can’t. However, you can beat it for quality, and here are a few reasons why.
Durability isn’t a mass-producer’s first priority. Hey, everybody knows this. If you’re in the business of selling something you manufacture, you want to be sure you’ll be able to keep selling it. If you were producing something which never wears out, then once everyone has bought it, your sales dry up; you need people to keep buying it, which means it needs to wear out.
Unparalleled excellence isn’t a mass-producers most essential goal either. A mass producer does need to have a product of sufficient quality to make you want to buy it, and it needs to cost less to buy it than it would cost you to make it. But that’s as good as the product needs to be. It is prohibitively costly to routinely exceed your needed quality guidelines as a mass producer.
Given sufficient market saturation, mass-produced goods own the market entirely and hand-produced goods don’t compete. Mass-produced goods are faster, cheaper, easier to come by, and good enough. Since you can get replacements easily and cheaply, you don’t care if it doesn’t last forever. In a very practical sense, it really doesn’t matter.
Large scale production finds savings in economies of scale. But what does this mean for yarn? Well, for example, getting more yardage from less weight of fiber means you make more money from the same raw materials. However, getting more yardage from less weight of fiber doesn’t necessarily mean a superior yarn for all purposes. Using less twist means the equipment spends less time producing the yarn (and lower-twist yarns tend to contain less fiber as well, actually) — again, this doesn’t necessarily mean a superior yarn.
Actually, for sock applications, it pretty uniformly means an inferior yarn. Less fiber in the yarn, and less twist, both mean a yarn that is more prone to wear, by pilling or shedding fiber and becoming threadbare. Such yarns will often tend to be less resilient as well, and prone to losing any elastic qualities more quickly. For lots of purposes, this really doesn’t matter, but I maintain that for socks, it does. If I’m going to handknit socks, I want them to last longer than storebought socks, and be worth repairing, and for it to be possible to repair them.
Now, mind you, there are mill-produced sock yarns out there which posess superior wear properties; but unfortunately many don’t. As a sock knitter, you may have experienced this, where some socks lasted really well and others were thrashed the first time you washed them. When you’re buying yarn, you’re at the mercy of the market choosing your materials; but when you spin your own, you are in complete control of these quality elements. What’s more, learning to spin your own sock yarn, and becoming familiar with how it feels and behaves, enables you to very quickly assess mass-produced offerings and predict how they’ll wear — a benefit to you even if you don’t always spin your own sock yarn.
Speaking of being at the mercy of the market, how many mass-produced sock yarns can you name that are made from blends of merino, silk, and angora? What if you wanted some? Supposing you found it, do you like the colours, and is it the right gauge for the socks you want to make? No? Well… why settle? As a handspinner, you could have exactly the yarn you want, produced on a one-off basis for just this exact pair of socks you have in mind — and you can rest assured it’s produced to the specifications you want. And you can have it in the quantity that you want.
Coming from the flip side of things, what if you have just a few ounces of a fiber you really like, but you aren’t sure what to do with it? Well, socks are a great and flexible project that doesn’t use a ton of yarn (and therefore doesn’t use a ton of fiber either). Consider spinning sock yarn. Even if, in the final analysis, you decide you don’t want socks from that fiber, then there are a number of other things you might do with sock yarn — and people who’d probably love to swap you something else for it (the yarn world isn’t exactly devoid of sock knitters, after all).
So now we’ve covered “why spin sock yarn!” Tune back in soon for more in our series about spinning sock yarn. Next up: colour!
I spent a while pondering what to do with the yarn, which I liked quite a bit, and ultimately decided to do a triangular shawl of some sort. I’ve done tons and tons of triangles where I start at the bottom point and go up (well, I’ve done a few). This time I thought I’d see about a top-down one. Since I planned to improvise, I decided to go top-down, center-out, as well, essentially creating a mitered corner at the centerline of the triangle, improvising pattern sections as I went. Here’s the in-progress shot…
…showing my big dilemma: I realized I would run short of the yarn I’d spun before bringing one section of pattern to a visual conclusion. I looked around for anything I had on hand in the same fiber that would be similar in colour, and that wool looked like it would do it… but spun up, it just plain didn’t work:
So, I decided that I’d just dye some of the same fiber yellow and go with “punch up the contrast and make it looke like it was intentional.”
Now, if you look in that in progress photo, you probably can’t see the problem, so let me try to explain. I structured the shawl top-down and center-out, so the stripes of colour from the long colour repeats would be downward-pointing chevrons going around that mitered corner. But from a structural standpoint the colour didn’t matter to the knitting, and the lace pattern sections were also structured as chevrons which, as I was knitting, would come together in a point.
Except that the final one wasn’t going to come together in a point before I ran out of yarn. Vis this photo from the blocking process:
See the yellow-tipped triangle? That’s the pattern element which had to complete or I was going to hate this shawl.
Now, while I was working this shawl — since I completely lack any semblance of project monogamy — I decided to start Foggy, Foggy Dew, and incorporate some of my thoughts from Pagoda into it. So Pagoda also became a prototype for how I wanted to do some things in FFD.
One such thing is beads, which are regrettably very hard to see in any of these pictures, and arguably too small relative to the yarn in the shawl, and thus too subtle to photograph. Not bad in person though.
So right now you’re probably thinking — and rightfully — “Geeze, Abby, please take some less awful pictures and show the whole thing and don’t just give us the heinous blocking-on-a-giant-blue-towel shots!” And I hear you. I really do. But first…
This is a huge blue towel, probably 6 feet long. Were I a functioning domestic type I’d remember if it was a “bath blanket” or “bath sheet” or what. Huge! Anytime I’m blocking something like this, I crave some sort of 3-meter-square gridded thing I cant stick pins into, like one of those self-healing mats for rotary cutters but big enough to block on. And it would really need to be like 3 meters square. But since I don’t have one… well. I half-ass the blocking. I pinned out the top edge straight, the centerline straight at various points on the way, and then just eyeballed and roughed in the points.
I’d done a very loose crochet cast off, placing beads at what would become the blocked points on the edges. This made certain aspects of blocking very simple, and it was an absolute requirement that I do this and get it blocked before completing the FFD shawl, so I can have my final beaded cast-off decisions made in time (which is to say, by about tomorrow night).
Okay, okay, so the better photos! Once it was dry — and I had to work to keep the cats away, because Kaylee kept trying to take pins out with her teeth and Paimei wanted to roll up in the towel — I took it out to the deck where I wish it were nice and green and pretty like it would be if not for drought.
My better half was there watching as I spread it out and got set up. “You should move the dead flower,” he said. “I might,” I told him.
“I definitely would,” he said.
Yes, that dead flower.
It’s not dead. It’s just resting.
But seriously folks, that’s a geranium. Now, I’ve seen geraniums thrive in the dry season in the Andes. I’ve seen them thrive in California summer. Even I, black thumb though I have always possessed (to the chagrin of my plant-growing parents and sibling and grandparents and cousins and everyone), usually can’t kill a geranium. And okay, I guess this one isn’t quite dead, but all the same, I think it shows just how bad our weather has been.
That was July.
But anyway, even though I decided to leave the dead flower in at least one photo, specifically so I could blog about the weather thus, I did take a few other Pagoda shawl pics.
Now, one interesting thing to note about this — and it’ll be true for FFD also — is that while it seems, patternwise, as if it’s a pair of right triangles, with two 90-degree angles at the top center, it’s really not. This is because of a certain fudge factor with increases at the edges. The angles are slightly obtuse as a result. However, I wanted it to still look like the center was in square, and the chevrons were in square at a 45-degree angle to those, so… blocking! And the fudge factor in blocking came into play at the pointy edges, which aren’t exactly evenly spaced.
I tried to make it look as right as possible right by the point, though.
If I had it to do over again, I think I’d use larger beads. At least at the edges, if nothing else.
I do like how it came out…
and I wish I had a big enough window to take a backlit picture and show the stitch pattern more clearly.
I’m disappointed in the candlelight pattern section, which is the chevron I was trying to bring to a close. I love the pattern, but it doesn’t really work right in this context, I feel.
The catspaws and smiling diamonds came out great, though, and all in all, I really like the yellow border with beads only there.
But yeah… next time, larger beads with this size yarn.
I’ll be taking it to SOAR to put in the gallery, so maybe I can nab a few photos there.