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!