Getting Started!

UPDATED 17 July 2017!

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?

Spinning can cost basically nothing

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.

2. What kind of fiber should I get?

fibers

Here are a few suggestions. If you’re wondering what some of the terms mean, here’s an explanation, complete with handy pictures (requires free registration).

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.

stringtopia2011

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.

Productive Spindling by Amelia Garripoli is another great spindle reference.

Some DVDs or streamable videos:

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.

WEB PUBLICATIONS

  • KnittySpin is the spinning focused section of web pioneer Knitty.
  • Spin Artiste is always great eye candy, and I love the interviews.

WEB COMMUNITIES

  • 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.
  • Just for kicks, if you’re looking for some top picks from my own archives, read this 100th post..
  • 5. Can you recommend any good videos on the web?

    Well, I’ve got a few aimed at the complete spinning novice, even starting on a budget:

    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.

    What’s the deal with those heavy spindles marketed for beginners?

    From time to time, the question arises: Why are there so many heavy spindles marketed as being “Great for beginners!” and so on? We’re talking about spindles weighing 3-5 ounces (85-140 grams), with big fat dowels for shafts, and generally low whorl. “Would you ever use this thing?” people ask. “Could you?”

    Well, sure.

    That was a great spindle, and I used it all the time. Its primary purpose was plying, but I spun on it too. I used pretty much no other spindle between the ages of 7 and 10 (I’m 8 in that photo). During that time, I mainly spun weaving yarn — fine, high twist weaving yarn. I’ve no clue what it weighed, but it was probably right in that 100 grams-ish range.

    Let me tell you, that spindle was indestructible. It was exactly the kind of thing you’d give to a kid who’s constantly on the go. That spindle knocked around in bags, got crammed into backpacks, dropped from extreme heights (you know, doing stupid yarn tricks), tossed around like crazy, used to thwack sheep, jabbed into the ground, used to pry rocks out of dried mud or dig up a pot shard that looked interesting, used to doodle in the dirt, sift through smoking hot dirtclods to stab a potato baked in a dirt clod oven, oh, I’m sure the list goes on. If you can think of a potential use for a stick, that spindle probably did it. And still got used to spin yarn.

    In the USA at that time — let’s say the late 70s and early 80s — spinning yarn was a fairly fringe activity, engaged in by a very small number of people, most of whom either had some fiber animals and were living a farm-type lifestyle, and a few of whom had some sort of academic interest in the pursuit. Knitters were in the closet in those days, crocheters were all about the granny square afghan from Red Heart, and weavers occasionally spun, but mostly didn’t. If you wanted a spinning wheel, and you found one, it was an antique, or it was most likely a kit-type wheel from Ashford or Louet. As for spinning fiber, well, it came from someone you knew with a fiber animal.

    Think about it. There was no Spin-Off; if you were lucky you could find books by Mabel Ross, Allen Fannin, and Peter Teal, and if you were lucky they were about objects you could find, but they generally really didn’t touch on spindles at all. Sometimes you might see a spindle demonstration, but rarely were there classes. I think there were literally four or five dudes who made spinning wheels. You’d hear that in Europe, you could buy fiber and equipment. And all in all, spindles were an afterthought, a curiosity, something that you might use to get started, maybe. If you were getting started at all, in a pursuit that had so few people doing it. I mean, there are probably more people who build fully functioning 1/18 scale gasoline engines, hand-machining their parts, than there were spinners in the USA at that time (and I’ve seen one of these engines at a car show one time, and it blew my mind, but my google-fu fails me. Which clearly points out how few of these hobbyists there are… which is my point). Seriously, nobody spun; and if they did, they didn’t do it with spindles, by and large.

    But anyway, without a doubt, most of the 2 dozen or so spindle spinners in the US at that time spun — and taught — with large, heavy, low whorl spindles. There are lots of reasons for this; and first of all, I’m going to send you off on a jaunt over to Jenny’s blog, to read her Ode to a Low Whorl, which eloquently covers many of the fabulous things low whorl spindles offer. Without reiterating too much of what Jenny says, all of which I totally agree with, I’ll present a quick list of benefits of the low whorl:

    1. Stability. With the weight at the bottom, low whorl spindles are less vulnerable to interrupted spin than top whorls. A low whorl, if it wobbles, generally keeps spinning; a top whorl with a wobble is more likely to stop sooner or feel really jerky.

    2. Sustain. Low whorls are more prone to spin for a long time than high whorls.

    3. Slop tolerance. Because of 1 and 2, it’s easier to build yourself a low whorl spindle that will get the job done, than a top whorl. I know I’m not alone in having stabbed a potato with a stick and used it to spin. That works with a low whorl; it doesn’t work so well with a high whorl.

    So if you’re building your own spindle — as you would have been before the ready availability of fabulous tools we have nowadays — you’re going to have better luck with a low whorl. It’s also easier to make a low whorl that doesn’t need any other hardware (like a hook) than a top whorl with no additional hardware required.

    So what about weight? Well, here’s another interesting thing. What most of the folks who taught anybody to spin with spindles were running into as a huge problem back in ancient history like the 1980s was that spindles would backspin in nothing flat, students wouldn’t catch it, drafting on the fly was giving folks problems, and so anything with more momentum was a help. People weren’t really teaching park and draft then so much. So you needed a spindle that would keep going even if you were spinning chunky thick and thin beginner yarn — and that’s a heavier spindle.

    Fast forward a little bit, and there started to be some great information about spinning, much more readily available, and more tools, and a wider range. I personally think Priscilla Gibson-Roberts’ High Whorling is an exceptional book about spindle spinning, filled with technique and real useable how-to info; the new edition is called Spinning the Old Way. It’s an excellent book, and really makes spindle-spinning accessible… but it focuses on high whorl spindles! Sometime in the past 10-15 years, we’ve started to see tremendous improvement in the availability of information about how to spin with spindles… but most of it has just not talked about low whorls at all.

    What’s more, in that same span of time, suddenly we started being able to get a wide range of fabulous fibers, prepped, dyed, totally ready to spin (again, not something we had back in ancient history like the 70s and 80s). The world of the beginning spinner, and beginning spindle spinner, and heck, spindle spinner or spinner at large, has really changed. What’s available, where, and at what price… much of this is a matter of fashion in the spinning world as it is elsewhere.

    So, would I say the heavy low whorl spindle is still the ideal place to start? Well… yes and no. It depends. In a perfect world, you’ll start with some loving handspinner shoving tools and fiber into your hands, demonstrating, taking you shopping, and shepherding you on your way. In an almost-perfect world, you’ll start with something that just speaks to you and makes you want to use it, want to fiddle with it, want to play around. But in reality, you’re probably going to start with whatever it is you first get your hands on. Admit it. We both know it, and it’s okay.

    If, then, you find yourself with a heavy low whorl drop spindle in your hands, and folks are telling you it’ll never work, don’t despair! It can; and the truth is, chances are you’re going to feel clumsy and awkward no matter what kind of spindle you have in hand. But down the road, you’ll find yourself acquiring more skill, and as you do, you’ll start to develop your own tastes and preferences. As you spin, too, these will evolve and shift. Eventually a time will come when you likely have a collection of spindles in varying weights and configurations, and you’ll have different feelings about them, and choose from them at will. It’s sort of like having kitchen knives. Do you need a cleaver? Maybe. What about a filet knife? Depends. But I think you need a chef’s knife, a paring knife, carving knife, and a bread knife at a minimum… and learning to use those tools effectively involves different things for each one. So it is for spindles.

    What do I start people off with? Honestly, I give ’em fairly heavy, somewhat imperfect low whorl spindles with lgreat durability, explain what makes the spindle work, and tell ’em where to find materials to make variations, and point ’em to local fiber shops or festivals to shop for more, of various kinds… which these days tends to mean “high whorls.” I don’t worry about people finding good info about high whorl spinning, or finding great high whorl spindles; but decent (or any) low whorls and good low whorl technique are harder to come by, so I like to make sure those are things I provide, in addition to the in-vogue high whorl stuff.

    So summing up, don’t discard that boat anchor! You may find you really like it down the road. Seriously. I’m not making this up.

    Oh… and lest you thought I’d forgotten about the sock yarn series, I have not! Colour is coming up, but I’m waiting on some skeins to dry so I can swatch them and take pictures. Bright, colourful pictures. Why? Because it’s March, by gum, and we could all use a little colour. With or without a U. Hi, Sara.

    For those of you coming to Beth’s place in Michigan later this month, I’ll be bringing the upcoming sock yarns, along with fiber for them, and you’ll learn how to reproduce them (among other things).

    One last piece of news to report, also: I’m delighted to tell you I’ve been selected as a mentor for Interweave’s 2008 Spin-Off Autumn Retreat! I absolutely can’t wait (but yeah, I know, I have to). It promises to be loads of fun and I’m hoping to see lots of you there. I’ll be teaching a 3-day workshop called Spinning For A Purpose, and four half-day retreat sessions on maximizing spindle productivity. I feel deeply honored to be included in the lineup this year — what a lineup it is! It’s hard to believe it’s barely March and I’m already looking forward to fall.

    Drafting, Predrafting, Prep, and Control

    In the past couple of years, I’ve noticed that a lot of the online discussions about getting started with spinning your own yarn include advice like “You really need to predraft your fiber in order to be able to spin it well,” and “If you aren’t getting fabulous yarn immediately, predraft more! Attenuate your fiber to the thickness you want your yarn to be, then put the twist in.”

    What surprises me is not that this advice is given, but rather that it seems to be turning into a conventional wisdom about what a new spinner must do, and then it’s passed on as such, and it gains more and more ground and in some cases, talking with newer spinners, I have been shocked to discover they honestly did not know that this was not a requirement.

    So, okay, caveats first:

    • Like the perl geeks say, There’s More Than One Way To Do It. The same techniques, tactics, and approaches don’t work the same for every spinner, every fiber, every prep, or every goal.
    • This is my personal take on the subject. Yours may differ; other expert spinners may disagree with both of us.
    • Everything I say is exactly what I believe 100% of the time without fail, except for when I don’t — because, as the wonderful Maggie Casey says, “It depends.” There is always a case that calls for the opposite of whatever I’ve just asserted. Let’s grant that, and move along.

    With that out of the way, let’s define some terms for the purpose of this discussion.

    1. Drafting is, in essence, managing the process by which you introduce twist to fiber. This sounds really simple — but if we were talking about cooking, it would be the process of introducing heat to food. If you have ever cooked anything, you know this is actually a much more involved process than it sounds like from so simple a definition. In cooking, you can get completely different results from putting the exact same food in a hot pan instead of a cold pan; similar things are true for drafting when you spin. Drafting is the heart and soul of spinning yarn, as well as the pure mechanics.
    2. Preparation, or prep, is what must be done to fiber in order to draft it. If you were cooking, consider: you could take a potato and put it straight into an open flame, leave it there, then pull it out later ready to eat. But that’s only one kind of cooked potato, and there are many others. You won’t get french fries, potato chips, potatoes au gratin, mashed potatoes, or latkes that way. You have to do prep, such as slicing, peeling, pre-cooking, and so on, to even stand a chance of being able to get the results you want.

    Okay, so here it is, baldfaced and simply stated: I don’t believe in “predrafting.” You know, except for when I do, as previously stated in the caveats. What we’re calling predrafting now is typically the practice of taking your fiber and getting it into a thinned-down state where, if you simply introduce twist, the result is yarn. I consider this to be nothing more than one type of prep work — not an essential step to spinning, but rather, simply one possible prep option. That being the case, I don’t like to think of new spinners believing it is a requirement in order to spin yarn.

    In fact, no preparation at all is required to spin yarn (from wool, at any rate). I could walk up to a sheep in a field, pull off a few tufts of fleece, and without doing anything else to that fiber, turn it into yarn. Really nice yarn, even, and I could do it in production mode and churn out a fair bit of it faster than you might think. I could do nothing more than that, and clothe my family forever. Heck, probably your family too, and probably also make all kinds of tools from the yarn. And if those were the only goals we had for turning wool into yarn, we’d never do any kind of prep at all.

    However, we want more from our yarn. We want lots of different kinds of yarn, suited to lots of purposes. We want lofty, soft yarn, and dense long-wearing yarn, and bumpy funky yarn, and smooth sewing thread, and yarn that’s for keeping us warm, and yarn that’s for walking on or building buildings or making sails for ships or being weapons and tools… so how do we get to the point of being able to have all those things?

    We all know, in theory at least, that you can have a wool yarn for almost any purpose imaginable. We have all (well, all of us who are likely to be reading this, at any rate) handled wool yarn that was coarse and scratchy and ropy, and handled wool yarn that was delicate, soft, and airy. If we’re weavers and knitters and crocheters and familiar with the yarn shop, we’ve learned there are kinds of wool, and some are softer than others, while others are stronger, and still others are shiny, and “wool” isn’t a simple catch-all.

    But what we don’t know, until we start to become spinners, is that there’s another entire world to the question. We don’t know, at first, that we could take merino wool — which everyone knows to be soft and fine — and turn the exact same fiber into gossamer, rope, all-purpose yarn, yarn for socks, yarn for shawls, yarn for sweaters, yarn for rugs. That cognitive leap hasn’t happened for us yet. But it will (and then, we’ll likely never recover and the world of yarn will be forever changed for us).

    As soon as that leap is made, the question that arises is obvious: How? How do we take the same fiber and make it so many different things? And the answer is, we do it the same way we take that aforementioned potato and make it into so many different meals. We use different processes, and follow different combinations of steps in different ways.

    You can’t take a raw potato, and smash it with a fork, then add in some milk and butter, and mix it all up, and have mashed potatoes. You have to boil the potatoes first in order to mash them. If you took a potato, and chopped it into cubes, then threw it in a deep fryer, what you pulled out would not be potato chips (crisps, for those of you on the other side of the pond). But if you sliced that potato so thin you could see through your wafers, and placed those wafers in the deep fryer, then what?

    This is because, as the olde farte spinners are wont to say, prep matters. Not only does it matter if the prep is done well, but it matters how it’s done and what kind of prep it is. When you do prep work, you’re doing it with an eye towards what you’re going to make. When you pick up that potato and decide if you’re going to peel it or not, that decision is made based on many factors — like what you’re going to cook, and if you like peels in it, for example. Chances are that you have tools which are specially made to help you with different prep tasks in getting that potato ready to cook. You have knives well suited to slicing, chopping, peeling. You may have a special peeler. You may have a food processor. You might have learned a variety of different tricks for getting it prepped just how you want it for the purposes you intend today. You know all this stuff already.

    But if you’re a new spinner with some new fiber, then chances are you don’t. What you have in your hands would be the equivalent, most likely, of a new frying pan and some diced, peeled potatoes and a small single-use pouch of vegetable oil. It came, if you were lucky, with a sheet of paper that said “Turn on stove. Place pan on heat. Use contents of vegetable oil pouch. Add potatoes. Stir until ready.”

    Following these steps will, in fact, produce cooked potatoes. One kind of cooked potatoes. You will be able to eat them. Assuming, of course, that you figured out that “use contents of vegetable oil pouch” meant “open it and pour it in the pan” and so on, but that’s a separate whole thing. But, well, once you have those cooked potatoes, are they what you had in mind? Are they what you hoped? Are they like cooked potatoes that you’ve had in the past? What if all you got was a mass of potato matter, burnt in some places, uncooked in others, which you had no desire to eat at all and which bore only a surface resemblance to any potato-based meal you’d ever seen?

    Luckily for you, in steps The Intarweb(tm) with the answer! You should, says the ‘net lore now, make sure the oil is hot, and preseason your potatoes. You must use salt and pepper. Doing this, people say, they’ve gotten home fries! Delicious home fries! So you follow the instructions, and now you, too, have home fries.

    Thing is, this has essentially no bearing whatsoever on how to get mashed potatoes. Everything you’ve just learned as a requirement for “cooking potatoes” is aimed at cooking one single potato dish, in one single way, from one single kit. Nothing about that is bad; home fries are delicious and tasty and being able to cook them is wonderful. And you do learn things from cooking up that home fries kit which build your cooking skills at large, and make you better able to fry things in general, and not just potatoes. You just haven’t touched on boiling, on leaving peels on if you like, on making julienned fries, or countless other things about the possible cooking of potatoes; and while frying is one valid means of cooking up potatoes, it is only one — and it’s not necessarily the easiest start for all cooks.

    Another problem is, of course, that once you’ve added salt and pepper, you can’t take them out. This, then, is where we turn back to the fiber, and talk about taking your fiber and attenuating it out to spinning thickness, then adding twist. Once you’ve done that, you can’t undo it, just like you can’t un-cut your potatoes. In other words, once you’ve done your prep, that prep can’t be undone. You can only do further prep. Each additional step you take during prep then limits what you can do with the fiber. Certain kinds of prep are absolutely essential to getting certain results, and don’t work well at all for others. Each prep style needs to be mated with a spinning style in order to achieve yarn, and these work together to produce a whole end result.

    This is where dancing comes in. When you learn to dance, you learn to do moves. Perhaps you learn them standing in a formal ballet class, one hand on a barre, with a metronome keeping time; perhaps you learn them hanging out with some pals blasting loud music that your parents hate; but it’s moves that you learn. And then you learn to combine them, string them together, move from one to the next. You learn to make them flow with music. You build a repertoire of moves, ways to use them, combinations, and things that eventually, your body can execute without real conscious control. This has been referred to by many as kinaesthesia — a key component to muscle memory.

    It’s important to our discussion here because, unlike cooking potatoes, spinning yarn absolutely requires the development of muscle memory to achieve real control and real success. Like learning a dance move, you’ll practice it and practice it, perhaps staring in a mirror to see if it looks how it should, perhaps comparing your physical movements to static pictures on a piece of paper, analyzing your results in some frustration, and persevering… until suddenly, maybe just once, maybe just for a second or two, bam — the muscle memory hits. It could be fleeting, then gone again, and you strive to get it back, simultaneously elated that you really felt it, and frustrated that, having felt it, now you aren’t feeling it.

    A spinner needs this sense, needs this physical knowledge. Is it possible to make yarn without it? Yes. Is it possible to really own that process, really make it work for you, without it? I believe it isn’t. On paper, dancing is nothing more than executing motions set to music. In practice, though, it’s more; and to really be good at it, you have to feel it — whether you’re dancing in “The Nutcracker” or going clubbing and thinking how sweet it would be to lose yourself in the tunes for a few.

    I think what a beginning spinner should be shooting for isn’t the yarn you’ll produce right off the bat. The yarn is secondary, really — I know that sounds crazy, but trust me on this. What the beginning spinner should be shooting for is the moment when you know you’re really dancing, really on beat, something larger than you is working through you and you could go forever just like you are right now. You’re looking for the moment in learning to ride a bike when, suddenly, it all came together and you knew you weren’t going to fall over, and you could just go and go and go. It’s the time you swung a bat at a baseball and you saw it hit and felt it through your whole body and the ball went flying and everybody was hollering “Run! Run!” It’s buttoning your winter coat in the dark one frigid morning. It’s reaching in your pocket and being able to tell what’s car keys and what’s change. It’s not having to look at your fingers while you type, knowing where the buttons are on your game controller. It’s all the same thing, but you have to learn it, physically, for each of those things. No amount of rational comprehension will ever substitute for feeling it.

    This is part of why small children learn to spin easily. Children are still in the throes of developing their kinesthetic sense of the world in which they live and how they can interact with it. They can’t tie their shoes, they can’t eat with utensils, they can’t make buttons work, they fumble with things, they try and fail — and that, too, provides them with a useful tool for learning to spin: readiness to deal with frustration. Kids are really up to speed on the whole idea that understanding how something should work doesn’t mean that they can just do it. It’s part of their daily reality. But for adults and older children, we’re adept at negotiating our life skills and learning new physical things comes very hard. We want it to be the case that comprehension, and following steps, produces the results we desire. We expect it to do so, because most of the time, it does.

    As adults, too, we become goal-oriented more than process-oriented. We know we’re spinning to get yarn; therefore getting yarn is the goal. So anything that gets us there is good. And, well, that’s true. But it’s limiting in the long run, because eventually we’ll build up a repertoire of quick-and-dirty moves that we can perform by rote, but never by feel. We’ll be able to stand in ballet class meticulously moving from first to second to third to fourth position, executing perfect pliès at every one, but we won’t be able to fly through an entire routine on stage as if something else were moving us. We’ll go out clubbing and we’ll be that chick who just looks like she’s trying too hard, instead of being that other chick who’s laughing and dancing and doesn’t even know anybody is watching her.

    Bringing it back to the potatoes (my mother would be so proud), yes, it’s possible to learn tips and tricks and follow directions and get great food. It’s like cooking from a recipe. There absolutely is a time and a place for it. But the best cooks, the cooks who really own it and shine, are the ones who can take or leave the recipe; the cooks who understand the recipe and yet can depart from it at will, the ones who can look in the pantry, pull out four things, and improvise a brilliant dinner. They’re the ones for whom it’s not just a science and a technology but also something you do while you’re singing, humming, tapping your feet; the ones who have a rhythm to their potato-dicing and can smell when it’s all coming together just right.

    When I’m teaching people to spin, that’s what I’m trying to help them become: spinners who can bring to bear all of the technical, scientific, and methodical stuff with the totally intangible sounds-like-a-hippie-fridge-magnet-slogan kind of stuff, to be able to dance through the process and emerge with exactly the desired yarn. I want them to feel it, but also be able to analyze it and reason it through. I want them to know there’s always more. I want them to be able to problem-solve and perform epic feats of spinnerly daring. I want them to risk, and fail, and learn from that; to set their sights high, take the long shot, and end up right on target. I want them to have the confidence to say “I can bake apple pie even without the nutmeg this recipe calls for,” and the savvy to say “This oven clearly runs hot, and I have to change my plans in order to get the pie I want.” I want them to be able to say, “Okay, the stir-fry kit was good, but next time I’m chopping my own veggies,” and get their dinners just how they want them.

    So, you’re wondering (if you haven’t forgotten entirely where we were going), what does this have to do with that “you must predraft to spinning thickness” conventional wisdom?

    The simple answer is, I hate it. I don’t want to see new spinners believe it’s required. I don’t want them to depend on it as a method. I think it’s crippling. Do I think it’s cheating? No. It’s one way, and a valid way, to get one kind of results. But I think it’s limiting. I think it robs a new spinner of key formative time early in the process, time that’s some of your best opportunity to develop the muscle memory you need to really control what you do, and to love your results, rather than just liking them.

    I think it appeals to us because we want to get yarn, and get yarn now. It works for that. For certain kinds of yarn, it has a place. For certain preparations, you do want to do the final prep yourself, immediately before spinning, say by pulling a roving or fluffing it up or tightening a puni or rolag or breaking it into pieces or all sorts of things. And you can learn a lot about fiber and how it moves by going through those process, and by attenuating fiber down very small without adding twist. It is a useful learning exercise at times, and it is a valuable tool to have in your toolbox at others. But what it isn’t is a requirement or an absolute; and as I say, I find it to be a hindrance to the acquisition of other spinning skills, which while they’re slower coming in some respects, make everything that comes after that much easier.

    So then, what advice would I offer new spinners to counter “you need to predraft?” Ah, I’m glad you asked that question!

    • Don’t worry about how your yarn looks. Really, don’t even think about it. Think about how it feels to spin. If you do this, then sooner than you think, that yarn you weren’t thinking about is going to look and feel far better than the yarn you made when you said “Abby’s totally full of it” and predrafted to spinning thickness anyway. In fact, I encourage you to do that.
    • It’s not a waste of time or fiber if you don’t get the yarn you hope for right away. It’s not — it’s an investment in skills acquisition. You are studying; time spent studying, and resources spent on study materials, are not wasted. Plus, later you’ll have them for benchmarks.
    • Do what you’d do if you were predrafting to spinning thickness… except, then add twist with your fingers. You can watch how twist takes the fiber, very closely. You can feel it in slow motion. You can just play with it.
    • Park and draft. When you spin, you aren’t using a tool to turn a material into a product. You’re not using a spindle (or wheel) to make wool (or other fiber) into yarn. I know, I know — this sounds completely bogus, and this next part sounds like a cheesy bumper sticker, but here goes: visualize yourself controlling twist. Twist is a force of nature, and you are its boss. It wants to eat your fiber. Are you going to let it? Eventually. But you’re going to feed it in a controlled way, because you are the boss of it (or you will be) and you know what’s best. Right now, all you’re doing is wrestling with it, sparring with it, learning its moves. Park and draft is a fabulous way to do that, and the building blocks of skills you’ll use forever as a spinner.
    • Relax. Laugh, let it go. It’s all good.
    • Remember: it is hard. Like anything else with so physical a component, people who are good at it make it look easy. I mean, Michael Jordan makes basketball look easy, but that doesn’t make it easy for mere mortals. You wouldn’t expect to walk onto a basketball court and do what he does; don’t expect to pick up a spindle, or sit at a wheel, and do what master spinners do. And forgive yourself when you don’t.
    • Take breaks. You’re learning a physical thing; you have to give your muscles a chance to have things gel. This won’t happen overnight.
    • Praise yourself. Lots of people around you aren’t going to have any idea what you’re doing. They aren’t going to have any helpful feedback. They’re possibly even going to be downright weird about it. Ignore them. You are doing a difficult, amazing thing. It will come.
    • Don’t assume that what worked for someone else will work for you. Sometimes what’s easy for one person is impossible for another. Don’t be afraid to try different things.
    • There is no One True Way. As a spinner, you must find your own way. In this case, you really are a special snowflake! Ask lots of people; disagree, argue, form opinions, state them, test them, try new things, and be willing to learn new ones too. In the long run you’ll have a style that’s all your own that’s made up of things you built yourself and things you learned here, there, and everywhere. Take advice from people who disagree with each other.
    • Everyone has something to teach you.You can learn The Answer To Everything You’ve Been Wondering, That One Perfect Truth, from someone who has never spun before, and in fact, you just put a spindle in his hands. Be ready and willing to learn it!

    And so, gentle reader, we come to the end of “Why Spinning Yarn Is Like Cooking Potatoes… and Dancing.” I hope you’ve enjoyed the diatribe! Remember, everything in it is 100% guaranteed to be my firm and unflinching opinion (predrafting stinks!), except of course for when I totally disagree and think you absolutely must predraft. In sum, know how to do it — but don’t depend on it. And if it doesn’t work for you, that’s cool — try something else, as there’s lots of other stuff to try. And if you’re a brand new spinner, don’t let anybody tell you “this is how you have to do it.” There’s no such thing!