Yesterday’s post office run netted me my birthday present from Chad: 2 boxes that came to me from Amelia Garripoli, of The Bellwether. What’s in them? Well, she decided to sell off some of her circular sock machines, and I was lucky enough to score her Autoknitter with 60, 80, and 100 needle cylinders, and the ribbers that match, and a full range of accessories and tools that go with it. She said of it:
#1) Autoknitter, very good condition, and I will include new needles
in addition to the needles that I put in new when I got it. Includes:
Machine with ribber
Cylinders: 60, 80, and 100 (!!)
Ribber plates: 30, 40, and 50 !!
2 wooden bobbin-things that stand on their own to hold yarn,
and a bobbin winder with its working leather cord
metal set-up basket and machine-knit setup bonnets for all 3 cylinders
(great for holding the ribber plates!)
one of my faux-replacement-buckles, your choice, acrylic or wood,
and one of the large blue pins I use for hanging the weights, along
with a “weight stack”. Heel pin (two-ended thingie).
Various other tools & goodies as I sort through the machines so you
have a complete, working setup — just bring yarn, tabletop, and oil.
This is a working machine, I’ve been using it this week in fact.
Autoknitter manual copy included.
And to my surprise, several very nice skeins of sock yarn, in appropriate thicknesses for each cylinder, with notes reading “Happy Birthday.” I don’t even have to haul out my commercial yarn storage bins and find sock yarn. 😉
Amelia packed this treasure meticulously, and with the kind of thoughtfulness that only another fiber nerd could appreciate. Every bubble-wrapped object is carefully labelled; the first thing evident when opening box #1 was a large envelope including a copy of the original manual, entitled The Auto Knitter Instruction Book – Better than a Hundred Hands. It only gets better from there; Amelia meticulously tagged and labeled every single object. There is a very real possibility, as I’m unpacking this, that I could actually be doing things with it before the day is over.
Anybody wondering whether or not to buy a used item from Amelia or The Bellwether can absolutely rest assured they’ll be getting exactly what she says, or better. I’m positively delighted. I don’t think I have ever bought a piece of used equipment — let alone a working museum piece such as this — and been so satisfied! I’ve bought brand-new modern things that were less ready to go, less well-packed, and less well-labelled.
****3 hours elapsed***
As is typical for manuals and instructions from before, say, WWII, it explains things very well, but makes assumptions about what you know — whereas modern instructions, of course, assume you know nothing, and couldn’t pour, er, liquid out of a boot with instructions printed on the heel, as you’d need instructions to tell you which one is the heel and how to get to the instructions there printed. Most of the time, I dislike modern instructions — but on the other hand, this Autoknitter is a tricky beast. In about three hours, I made it to page 9 in the manual, and I’m not that bad in terms of mechanical aptitude.
4 hours in, I managed to get the set-up bonnet onto the thing and ready to go… and in the first round cranking, blew that, due to poor positioning of the carrier that goes around the outside, resulting in exactly 2 stitches getting knit. Well, I thought, perhaps some will pick up if I do one more round, slow and careful… HAH! It took about 20 minutes to remove all of that, and another 20 to get the bonnet on again. I spent another 2 hours on 3 more tries, all unsuccessful; I could get the setup bonnet on, but actually getting functional knitting to happen eluded me within 2 rounds. Taking tangled blown knitting OFF the thing is rather time-consuming.
After taking a break for dinner, I relocated from my office, where I’d unpacked the machine, to the evening tv-watching zone and spent the remainder of the evening familiarizing myself with it. I successfully made the scrap yarn make a tube! And then when I added in less-scrappy yarn in the same grist, well, it turns out to have been somewhat denser than the scrap yarn and I didn’t adapt in time, and so I wound up with wasteful tangle again.
Thinking it over, I decided to move to a slightly thinner yarn — some Norwegian Sport Wool from elann.com that I’d had in my stash for probably 5 years. This yarn being enough thinner than either of the previous yarns, it required me to work on better understanding the tension apparatus than I previously had, which resulted in me and Chad both going over diagrams in the manual to really grasp it, assorted tinkering and fine adjustments being tried, me improving my speed at putting on the setup bonnet in quite a substantial way, and finally, a 50 gram white tube, with dropped stitches and varying problems I’d worked around or corrected as I was able to see how to correct. I took a picture, and Chad ripped it for me and wound it back onto one of the large bobbins, while I took a break.
I reknit that same tube, with some problems each time, 3 times before the night was over, and learned a ton!
My first attempts are far denser than I’d like. Per the manual, this is due to me pulling really hard, or heavily weighting, the work; but if I ease back on that, I get stitches not being made. There are clearly delicate fine adjustments, and elements of having a feel for things, which will take time. This is definitely one of those things, like weaving, where setup being done well is key to success — and it’s hard to know whether or not you’ve done set-up well when you have no experience with the thing! With weaving, I started weaving at age 5, but didn’t learn to warp and tie heddles until I was 8 (fairly typical), and then it was at least a year before I was consistently able to warp really consistently and tie really good heddles — which were still not as good, nor done as fast, as those done by adult master weavers. I was 10 years old, 5 years into learning to be a weaver, and about halfway through the progression of pattern-learning and so forth, before I was really good enough at setup to be able to do it fast enough and consistently enough to be put to work doing things like workshop setup for my parents’ workshops; for teaching purposes, setup had to be really, really perfect.
There’s a pretty steep learning curve here, even for someone with a broad range of textile expertise. I expect my newbie learning stages will last far longer than they would have to if I had an expert handy to teach me about this apparatus in person. At this stage of the game, I don’t have any idea how long it’ll be before I proceed from one phase or another; I may well be in “working on making a good tube” for quite a while.
For today’s adventures with the autoknitter, I’ve resolved to simply not care at all about the fabric being too tightly knit or too dense, and to work on a few seemingly-simple basics:
Set-up bonnet speed (I’m using a knitted setup bonnet kindly provided by Amelia), evenness, and neatness; getting that first round knitted.
Knitting a distance with waste yarn, then changing to the non-waste yarn, without blowing the tension
Getting the buckle or clips on right, and weights attached
If, by the end of today’s autoknitter time, I’m able to consistently get a good tube with NO problems in it like dropped stitches, changing from scrap yarn to not-scrap, I’m going to feel very positive about my accomplishments.
I’m not going to worry about the quality of the fabric with respect to density; I’m not remotely close to thinking about the ribber; I’m not ready to think about going bidirectionally with the machine, as required for heels and toes.
I will make concerted efforts to document what’s going on and the problems as I encounter them, however; that way perhaps expert CSM folks can look at my pictures and say “Simple fix, n00b! Lern 2 crank!”
On several occasions last night, I found myself thinking, “Man, my handspun yarn really would be easier to work with than this commercial yarn.” Why? I’m splitting the commercial yarn more than I’d like to be, and I know my 2-ply handspuns aren’t so splitty. Minor adjustments to the carrier eliminated most of them — but I’m still getting a few splits and they’re nigh impossible to see as they happen.
These days in the modern world, where spinners have access to a wide range of tools, plying on a drop spindle is sometimes rejected and thought of as slow or cumbersome. We also sometimes tend to think of plying as very tool-dependent, seeking out lazy kates, tensioning devices, and so forth. While useful (and in the case of some plying techniques, all but indispensable), these tools can also be limiting, and nothing equals the freedom of being able to take your plying with you.
In the Peruvian Andes, traditional spinners use drop spindles exclusively, achieving very high levels of productivity with very simple tools, including at times no tools other than hands and existing yarn. All spinning, and all plying, take place on drop spindles, commonly while walking from place to place. As a girl, I learned numerous yarn management techniques which can greatly speed up — and liberate — your spindle plying. Even though my modern life in the United States includes a wide range of tools, there are plenty of times when I choose a heavy plying spindle over anything else. Sometimes, this is because of unparalleled portability; other times, it’s because I don’t want to be limited by bobbin size. And at times, drop spindle plying has saved me tons of work, or outright disaster, on a yarn I didn’t think was ever going to see a spindle. You can read about one such incident here: http://www.abbysyarns.com/wordpress/?p=14
Making your plying portable starts with freeing yourself from the bobbin or full spindles. Without needing to ply from bobbins or spindles, you no longer need a tool to manage those, such as a lazy kate. The well-accepted technique of plying from both ends of a center-pull ball is one way to do it, but many spinners agree this doesn’t work ideally for all yarns, and isn’t ideally transportable. The solution for a 2-ply yarn: simple! Just take both ends of the center-pull ball, and rewind them together into a new ball. You could do it as a center-pull ball, or as an outer-feed ball. I like to use Peruvian-style ball winding techniques, which produce a firm ball that keeps active singles under tension and, having courses, allows you to secure a ball to your clothing with a safety pin (for example) for worry-free transport of your unplied yarn.
Traditionally in the Andes, when a spinner has a full cop on a spindle ready to be plied, one of two things happens: first, you actually have two full spindles. Due to the design of the Andean Pushka spindle, with a pointed shaft bottom, the most traditional thing to do is plant those ends firmly in the ground, spindle shafts vertical, and take both ends from the spindles and wind them into a 2-stranded ball. Yarn slips neatly off the end of the shaft without issue. Although Andean weaving yarns are all traditionally 2-ply yarns, you can use this technique with any pointy-bottomed spindle… so long as you have some ground you can jab pointy sticks into, of course! If you live in the rural Andes, you likely do; in the modern first world, you very well may not. In those cases, I do what I’d do if it were raining in Peru and I couldn’t find a good patch of ground: take off my shoes, and put one spindle shaft bottom between each big toe and its immediate neighbour, and use my feet to hold the spindles to wind off of together.
When you get to the end of one of your spindles full of yarn, this is where Andean spinners actually use what US and European spinners now refer to as “Andean Plying” — the bracelet is actually viewed as nothing more than a yarn management technique to simplify finding both ends of a longer length of high-twist yarn than you can reasonably handle without some sort of trick. You then take the end of the fuller spindle, splice it with the end of the shorter one, feed out your “Andean Plying Bracelet,” and finish winding your 2-stranded ball. The bracelet technique is never traditionally used for really full spindles — it is fairly impractical for the volumes of yarn typically packed onto spindles by Andean spinners (commonly several thousand yards of very fine, high-twist yarn). While a very handy trick, it isn’t really viewed as a production technique.
So, what if you only have one full spindle? If you’ve wound your cop well and firmly, and you’re careful, you can slide it off the end of your spindle, find the leader yarn at center and the spun end at the outside, and basically treat it like a center-pull ball. If you are less daring, though, this may be a place to use the Andean bracelet winding technique to wind your 2-stranded ball. It could also be a good time to simply wind a single-stranded ball, very tightly, holding the spun yarn under tension, and then proceed to spin more. I do this if I’m spinning on a spindle that is very lightweight, producing a medium-twist fine yarn or spinning from down fibers; in that case, the added weight of spun fiber can dramatically change how the spindle acts. I also do it if I’m traveling and have only one spindle with me. Eventually, this way you end up with a few single-ply balls stored under tension; and at this point, you can wind one of those together with the yarn that’s on a spindle, together with each other, and so forth.
Next: what if you don’t want to make a 2-ply yarn? No problem — you can wind a ball with as many strands of yarn as you want (though I don’t think I’ve ever done more than seven, and don’t routinely do more than 4). The down side to a 3-ply is that you don’t have a handy trick like the plying bracelet or center-pull winding to easily find 3 ends; so in this case, you need to either work from three spindles or balls or bobbins, winding all at once, or else wind a 2-strand ball and then combine that with a third. You can, of course, for a 4-ply yarn, simply repeat your first and second winds: say you wound a 2-strand center-pull ball — now take both ends of that, in turn, and wind a 4-stranded one.
Okay, so why would you do all this winding and rewinding? Well, consider plying directly from spindles and bobbins, and the yarn management issues you can run into with tension and so forth; and consider what you may have encountered if you ever put down a yarn you were in the middle of plying from a center-pull ball. Winding and rewinding separates the yarn management from the actual plying, and allows you to focus on one at a time. You eliminate problems like uneven wind-on causing uneven wind-off and backspinning bobbins or breaking yarn. You have an additional opportunity to correct any undiscovered flaws in the single, with quick splicing and so forth. Lastly, you wind up with something you really can put down, carry around, throw in a bag, and so on.
That said, there are some things to be aware of when winding a multi-stranded ball. The first is what Quechua-speaking Andean spinners refer to as a ch’oro — a Quechua word for something which is off-center, out of balance, or uneven. If one of your strands is looser than the other(s), you get an uneven ply — sometimes even with a little tag hanging off the side, where one ply has corkscrewed up on itself! You have to be vigilant, as you are winding, to be sure you’re winding fairly evenly. But it doesn’t generally matter if some twist sneaks into the yarn as you’re winding — after all, you’re getting it ready to be plied, and most of the time, you can just pass by that and keep winding without any real unevenness happening. Just watch (and feel!) for the real ch’oro, and fix it as you are winding your ball.
With your multi-strand ball wound, simply take the end from which you plan to ply (I use the outside of a tightly-wound Peruvian-style ball), attach it to your spindle as you desire, and ply away! You can put the ball in a bag, a loose pocket, a bowl on the floor if you aren’t going anywhere, or (assuming it’s a Peruvian-style ball), put a safety pin through the ball several courses below the working outermost course, and pin it to your clothing — I routinely do this by pinning to a belt loop on my jeans. You can feed quite a bit of yarn from courses outside of the point where the safety pin is, and then simply move to a newer, more inward course when you reach the pin. And with a Peruvian ball, when you get down to the very end, where the ball is light, you’ll be able to slip the loops of it over your wrist and ply the last little bit from a bracelet without worrying about the lightweight ball bouncing all over the place.
It’s also not uncommon for Andean spinners to wind 2-stranded skeins of yarn, dye the yarn unplied, and then ply it afterwards — often straight from the skein, with the arm of their supply hands through the center of the skein, and the loose skein simply hanging there. Me, I like this method less — it is a little finicky to put down, and unless you’re really careful, it’s too likely to present you with a great opportunity to practice your skein untangling skills (there’s probably an entire article in that subject alone, too!). It’s a common enough sight, and the folks who like to do it that way sure make it look easy, but take my word for it: it’s not easy.
Andean spinners have several more tricks that speed up plying and spinning both — and several tricks generally thought of as silly kid tricks, which are entertaining and sometimes even useful to a degree. The first thing to master is walking your yarn up on the fingers of your supply hand — this allows you to control a longer length of yarn than your armspan, keeping it under tension. The more you can spin or ply between wind-ons, the faster you’ll be. The second, verging on the silly kid tricks, is to ply off a ledge. I used to stand on a balcony, and drop the plying spindle all the way down to the sidewalk below. Girlhood friends and I would ply off Inca terraces. Mind you, with the silly kid trick element here, make sure your half-hitches are good, or you could be chasing your spindle a long way, much to everyone else’s amusement.
You can move twist past your forward hand while plying, with relative ease — simply slide your forward hand back and forth along a foot or two of the yarn you’re plying, and you’ll see twist move past it more than you might have thought! This, too, is key in allowing you to spin or ply longer lengths between wind-ons.
The final speed trick for plying — you could do this for spinning as well but it is riskier in terms of breakage — is to get the spindle spinning by rolling it between your hands (see video). It’s not unlike the popular thigh roll, often used with top whorl spindles, but between your hands. You can spin the spindle in either direction this way, of course — starting with your left hand at the back, and pushing it forward, you will cause a clockwise spin, whereas if you start with the right hand further back and push it forward, your spindle will spin counter-clockwise — same difference as if you were to thigh roll up vs. down your right thigh, or down vs. up your left.
If your plying spindle is not heavy enough to have sufficient momentum to keep spinning long enough to get your desired amount of twist in, walk the yarn up on your fingers, and repeat — you can basically drop the yarn all the way into the spin. Mind you, if you are plying off a balcony, terrace, or substantially raised surface, have a strong yarn if you’re going a long way — otherwise, you can snap it.
I love plying on low whorl, hookless drop spindles weighing upwards of 1.5 ounces / 50 grams. The heavier a spindle, the better it is for plying (taking into consideration other spindle physics premises, of course). Plying on a drop spindle is a terrific way to teach brand new spinners the motions involved in keeping a spindle in motion, how to wind on, and so forth.
Got bio and ad to Fiber Femmes, just in time I think!
Desert Flower Heather
Orange Bulky 3-Ply
…spent 20 minutes doing so, wow!
Spun 420 yards falkland/bombyx blend into yarn for felting. 50 minutes, plus 10 to skein and throw in the finishing wash.
Most of the rest of the day knitting away on the Desert Flower shawl… like 8 hours, which seems to add up to about 16 rounds. The thing must be bigger than I think it is.
By the time evening rolled around, I was starting to get curious about whether or not I must just be slowing way, way down on the Desert Flower shawl; sometimes that’ll happen to me as I get into the final laps of a lengthy project — not always due to perception, I mean sometimes I really DO slow down. So I counted stitches for a short side and a long side, and concluded that right then, each round on the rectangle was 440 stitches; and every other round, it increases by 8. Then I timed myself knitting a round: 25 minutes.
I reflected on the slowness as I continued, determined to make it to a point where I was going to be working on the final pattern round or, if I opted to extend the particular one I was in, I could refer to the knitted portion rather than a chart, if I needed to check myself. That way, I figured, I could take the thing with me to 2007’s first installment in Abby’s Ongoing Dental Purgatory.
Two major things occurred to me. First, I’d opted for this particular portion of the shawl to be a garter-stitch based Shetland lace pattern with patterning every row, which because I’m working in the round, also requires some fancy footwork to seamlessly hide the turns required because the particular pattern, I know from experience, doesn’t lay right if you don’t really do it turning the piece. With patterning that involves eyelets and careful decreases and that sort of thing on every single row, you also end up with annoyances like the sequence below, contrast enhanced in hopes of making it visible:
Clear as mud? Okay, let’s say you do a yarn over increase on row 247,000 (can you tell I feel like this project has been going on forever?) If row 247,001 were one of those “row 2 and all WS rows: purl” type rows, the appropriate leg of the YO would be sitting where you can easily pick it up purlwise, you’d just purl in that yarn over and then by the time you get to row 247,002 where you have to do a decrease right next to the eyelet a row back, the stitches are lined up in such a manner that they’re fairly easy to slip your working needle in and execute whatever stitch is required.
But, with row 247,001 being a knit row including pattern, by the time that you get to the spot where you’ve got to do a decrease next to a YO, especially if you have lots and lots of stitches on the needles and keep sliding them around a circular, sometimes that yarn over will try to lay across one or more of the stitches next to it in a most annoying fashion. It’s then necessary to separate them a bit so you can get the needle into the correct stitch without snagging that YO and screwing up your eyelet. I wind up doing this by tugging a bit on the knit fabric below the culprit stitches, which makes things pop back into line. But, in this particular pattern, there are so many k2togs right next to a leggy yarn over, my thumb was growing exhausted from constantly having to do what’s shown in the second photo above, to get to the third photo. And that sort of tired thumb situation takes a toll on my left wrist too.
Ergonomically, projects which are all knit rows drive me nuts. I opted to finish only one repeat of that particular pattern, then move to a pattern that isn’t close-worked for the remainder of the shawl, so as to have some merciful, hand-easing rows of 500+ purls. Which seriously are much much faster; I timed myself for a straight purl row once I finished that pattern repeat, and though that row was at least 32 stitches longer and I was more tired, it took only 16 minutes.
The second thing that occurred to me is that it’s harder for me to read the fabric on close-worked patterns (where there’s pattern to be done every row instead of every other row), meaning I have to spend more time counting, checking things carefully, and so forth — whereas with patterns containing an every-other-row-is-plain element (whether in garter or stockinette) I can easily read the knitted fabric as I go and know what has to happen.
Well, time’s running out and I must be off to the dentist. Productivity so far today: none.
So far this decade… well, century… hrmmm, milennium at that! I’ve found the even number years to be rough, tough, and challenging, with the odd number years much less eventful. However, I don’t know that I expect 2007 to be uneventful or unchallenging, what with a fledgling business in play now and everything! I’ve got more than a few plans and goals for the coming year, and I’m very much looking forward to 2007 and all it brings.
First up, I decided that for at least one month, I would attempt to document, and put online, everything fiber oriented that I do. Yes, everything! I expect this to actually be trickier than it sounds, as I suspect that there are fiber-oriented things I do which I don’t even notice or remember — sort of like how one doesn’t really notice or remember what t-shirt one was wearing 3-4 days ago, or that one had a snack, or all sorts of little things. I anticipate that I’ll routinely forget that I spun this sample, or tried that blend, or repaired Chad’s hat, or wrote a quick article about something… and I bet even I will be surprised by how much I actually do.
That said, of course, so far this morning of 1 January 2007, I’ve done nothing yet. Well, I guess I did go find a bunch of my old posts about fiber arts, and put them into the archive on this site, while drinking my coffee and doing a year-end/new year email reorganization.
On tap for today, I plan to work more on the Desert Flower shawl, whose purpose is really to be a giant swatch for this yarn, which was spun as an example for the blend next to it, which is for sale on eBay this week. The blend is camel down, silk, merino, and a bit of firestar nylon, and the first big skein — I intended to just swatch one skein — was spun from two batts, preserving colour separation to get an interesting long-repeat self-striping yarn.
The shawl starts with the yellow at the center, and radiates outward through the pink, into the purple at the outside… or that was the plan. But into the purple, I realized I was going to run a little short and this posed a dilemma: run off with another couple of the batts from sales inventory, and spin up just the purple parts, or do something else? In the end, I took one large batt and spun a heathered yarn; so now when it’s all done, the outside edge will be a heather of all the discrete colours in the entire shawl, and a good example piece for how you can do a lot of interesting colour tricks with a multicoloured batt.
The original skein was about 400 yards, and the second is 240. And no, you can’t see any pictures of that yet, because it looks like a giant sack on some 40″ size 3 US Addi circulars! It’s a rectangle, somewhat haphazardly throwing in assorted patterns from Sharon Miller’s Heirloom Knitting, which happens to be the only knitting book I didn’t pack when we moved, leaving it out as a reference while traveling instead. And I haven’t unpacked any of my fiber books yet; I should put up more shelves in either my office or workshop, so I can do that.
Other than that, on the UFO knitting list for the moment, I have a scarf for me from commercial cashmere (Belisa cashmere laceweight yarn I picked up at Stitches West last year) — which among other things, is part of my “achieve peace with pink” goal for my near future: the yarn is variegated salmon pinks to a smoky tan. That one’s just an elaborated print o’ the wave simple one for carrying around places. The toughest part of it so far has been finding a lacy pattern that I felt looked good with the length of the colour repeats. It’s sitting by my slothing chair on a pair of old size 2 straights and I haven’t touched it in probably 2 months.
There’s also the triangle swatch. Urgh! The point of this was to swatch some of my handpaint lace yarns. It’s presently taking up a pair of 40″ size 2 Addis and every day I try to make myself knit a bit more. It’s really going to be a small shawl or large scarf when it’s done, with a falling leaves center that increases as you go up, forming an isosceles right triangle, around the outside of which is an in-the-round… well, in the triangle… lace border which is about to shift back to falling leaves from a more open improvised X’es sort of thing. The “urgh” comes in because for this project, I had to actually seek help from someone who remembered more trigonometry than I did, to work out the logistics of how I wanted to do increases in the round at the 45-degree angles. I know from experience that when I fudge that, I get almost a shawl collar on the shawl, which while it’s sorta comfy, I think looks crummy (vis this little shawl, which I wear and actually like for function, but find that I never wear it for style, only as a practical thing).
I’m trying to keep my plate relatively clear, because I know that any day now, two boxes will be arriving in the mail containing my birthday present, which is nothing less than a vintage autoknitter with 60, 80, and 100 needle cylinders, which I hope will consume a great deal of my excessive handspun sock and lace knitting yarn stash.
Christmas of 2006 brought me a Louet Victoria wheel, given to me by my son. I’ve now spent five days treating it as my primary wheel, and putting it to the real-life Abby test. Read on for a comprehensive review.
The Simple Facts
The Louet Victoria, or S95/S96, is the latest wheel from Dutch wheelmaker Louet, whose wheels and other fiber equipment have been well-received over the past several decades by a wide range of fiber artists. Key elements in Louet wheel popularity are modern design and materials, terrific durability, and ease of maintenance. However, some handspinners (including myself) have found Louet wheels to be somewhat limited in versatility for one major reason: they have always been bobbin lead. That changes with the Victoria, a lightweight portable wheel which is also Louet’s first flyer lead / scotch tension offering.
Louet states that Victoria is as of this writing the lightest and most compact portable spinning wheel on the market, an audacious claim but one which appears to be accurate. Lighter than all the competition at about 10 pounds even in the carry bag with all accessories, the Victoria folds up to be slightly taller than the venerable Bosworth Journey Wheel, but also a little thinner. Securely stowed in a well-designed carry bag which can be used as an in-hand tote, tote with shoulder strap, or backpack, the Victoria is a no-brainer to fit in an airline overhead bin, and possibly under the seat in front of you. Victoria’s carry bag secures and pads the wheel and lazy kate and bobbins quite well, and features a capacious exterior pocket which could easily accommodate a number of additional bobbins and several pounds of fiber. If you can carry around a typical laptop bag, you can carry around the Louet Victoria.
As of December 2006, the new Louet wheel comes standard with three drive ratios, 6:1, 10:1, and 14:1; Louet says that a high-speed kit will be available in the first half of 2007, allowing ratios higher than 20:1. Louet’s web site lists the S95/S96 at 3-3.5 kg (6.5-7.5 pounds) with a folded size of 13.5 cm thick, 30 cm wide, and 47.5 cm tall (that’s 5.375 inches thick, 11.875 inches wide, and 18.75 inches tall). The Victoria in its initial sales phase comes with the carry bag, 3 bobbins, and a 2-bobbin lazy kate, and retails for $550 US, although vendors indicate that the price is expected to increase to the $700 US range following the initial round of sales. It is available in beech (S95) or slightly heavier oak (S96).
Bobbin Lead? Flyer Lead? What?
Simply put, bobbin lead means that what is driven when you treadle is the bobbin, so the bobbin is the first thing to move, and the flyer (which turns separately from the bobbin) follows after. Braking action is applied to the flyer, often with a leather band across the orifice. On a bobbin lead spinning wheel, a drive band connects the drive wheel and bobbin, causing the bobbin to turn when the drive wheel turns. This type of setup is sometimes called Irish tension.
On a flyer lead spinning wheel, a whorl attached to the flyer is connected via a drive band to the drive wheel, and the flyer is the first thing to move. Braking action is applied to the bobbin, which turns independent of the flyer. This type of setup is often referred to as Scotch tension.
On a flyer lead wheel, it is possible for a spinner to easily reduce the tension, or strength of pull-in and takeup of spun yarn on the bobbin, to near zero, enabling the spinning of extremely fine yarn and short stapled and fine fibers. This very light takeup is much harder, and in some cases impossible, to achieve with bobbin lead. Many handspinners who prefer to spin very fine yarns therefore shy away from bobbin lead wheels, opting instead for flyer lead wheels, whether scotch tension or double drive. This being the case, lace spinners have often rejected Louet wheels simply on the basis of being bobbin lead (though many Louet owners have found ways to reduce the takeup on their wheels and spin yarns that are quite fine).
The Setup, and the Technical Dirt
Nothing about the wrapped present under the Christmas tree said “spinning wheel” to me, even when my family gleefully urged me to shake the present and try to guess what it was. Wrapped in its original shipping box, it weighed under 10 pounds (or under 5 kg), the package was maybe 8 inches (20.32 cm) thick, and nothing rattled or sounded like bobbins or moving parts, at all. Mind you, with the wrapping paper off, the telltale LOUET packaging with details on the wheel on the end, shipped from a fiber shop I know well, were dead giveaways.
Opening the shipping box, out slid the wheel packed securely in its zippered nylon carrying case. Unzipping the top flap and opening it, printed instructions leapt right out at me explaining the sequence in which to unpack it. Held in place by two nylon straps with backpack-style buckles, as well as fitted holes and light padding secured to a flexible but sturdy backplate, it was impressive to see what all fit in the carry case neatly. Following the instructions, I removed a bobbin from its secure holding place, unbuckled the first of two nylon straps, gently pulled a knob that held the wheel in its folded state and swung the back bar with drive wheel and whorl upright, at which point that same knob clicked smoothly into place holding the wheel upright. I unbuckled the second of the nylon straps, lifted the wheel out by the leather loop across the top of the back bar (a carrying handle!) and placed it in front of the chair where I intended to spin, noting with surprise that it was only a little more than knee high, and made my nearby Majacraft Suzie Pro look like a hulking behemoth. I looked in the bag for the flyer, then realized (yes, I went back to the instructions!) it was secured in a nylon bushing under the left treadle.
The three-grooved Louet whorl is made from a lightweight metal which appears to be powdercoated black, and is mounted securely at the top of the hinged back bar. At the center of the whorl is a slot into which the flyer shaft fits, aided by a magnetic lock; to remove the flyer for changing bobbins or to pack up the wheel, you hold the whorl steady and pull towards you on the flyer and bobbin, and they simply snap out of place (but don’t forget to watch out for your brake band). The entire flyer comes off, shaft included — this is similar to how the Ashford Joy flyer assembly comes off, for those familiar with that. In lieu of a more traditional mother-of-all and maiden bar, the Victoria has a small wooden piece which extends out from the back bar under where the flyer goes, and it is this piece which houses the scotch tension mechanism. As supplied, the scotch tension setup consists of a long spring at left mounted to a peg, with a monofilament that you then route over the bobbin groove, under a hook at right, and forward to where you insert the tubular tensioning knob into a hole in the aforementioned wooden piece. The flyer operates independent of any friction bearing, similar to Majacraft flyers or, again, the Ashford Joy.
The flyer itself is made from the same wood as the wheel (mine is oak), including the flyer arms. Stationary hooks are placed on either side of the orifice (which is also a lightweight metal with an apparent black powdercoat covering), and flyer hooks are nylon rings with metal loops. Bobbins have end caps made from medium density fiberboard (MDF) with a veneer matching the rest of the wheel (one end grooved for the brake band) which contain nylon bushings, and the core appears to be nylon or plastic.
The drive wheel, the widest part of the entire Victoria, measures a full 14 inches (35.56 cm) in diameter — just a tiny bit larger than the drive wheel on the Suzie Pro, to my surprise. It is also made from MDF with a matching wood veneer, very seamlessly done. It is my opinion that MDF is in many respects functionally superior to solid wood for things like drive wheels, due to its uniformity of weight. However, MDF is not particularly attractive; the veneer solves this problem nicely.
One single footman rod connects to the drive wheel using a nylon cup that snaps on and is secured in place by a nylon ring that you slip down to the end of the cup; you must detach this in order to fold the wheel. It actually detaches easier than it attaches, and it is this piece which I would expect to see wear out and need replacing the soonest — but no guesses how long that might take, and it would depend on how you use the wheel as well.
The single footman rod connects to the right treadle; a wooden seesaw bar connects the two treadles. Each treadle is hinged near the bottom (where your heel would go) but not all the way at the bottom; this allows for a heel-toe treadling action, or a light touch with the ball of your feet further up the treadle. It is entirely possible and comfortable to operate the wheel using either foot, or both feet. Treadles are placed fairly close together, and are slightly longer and wider than my feet shod in women’s US size 8 (metric/European 38) shoes.
To pack up the wheel, you detach the flyer, remove the bobbin, and place the flyer shaft into the nylon bushing beneath the left treadle, flyer hooks facing up. Pick up the wheel and place it into the carry bag so the feet slip into their little holder spots, secure the first strap over the treadles, and twist on the footman rod to detach it from the drive wheel. Pull out the small knob at the hinged back bar’s base, and fold the back bar down — the knob will snap into place automatically when the wheel is fully closed. Secure the second strap across the wheel, place one bobbin in its elastic loop holder and the lazy kate with two bobbins on it in its spot in the carry case, zip up, and you’re done. Setup and pack-up both take 2-4 minutes tops.
The Road Test
In five days, I spun a range of fibers and types of yarn which I felt would represent a fairly broad spectrum of spinning, though focusing in particular on what has always been the Achilles heel of Louet wheels, extremely fine yarn. Because the highest ratio presently available is 14:1, I excluded cotton from my tests for the time being. I put both spinning and plying to the test, as well as the lazy kate, and specifically looked for idiosyncracies, quirks, and limitations.
Let me start by saying that I am largely a spinner of very fine yarn; I’m also a very fast drafter who likes to spin at very high ratios, even for types of yarn which most people spin at lower ratios. 12:1 is about as low a ratio as I typically spin at, so the Victoria’s default top ratio is on the low end of what I like to spin with personally. I’m also an admitted flyer lead aficionado, and someone who spins for sometimes as much as 10 hours in a day. Lastly, I have bad knees due to a hereditary issue that results in very easily dislocated kneecaps, particularly with uneven fatigue (so I no longer drive stick, run, or spend really long periods of time with single treadle mechanisms).
All three bobbins were equipped with a loop which worked well as a leader to attach a yarn for plying; for spinning though, I prefer a fairly long leader, so I tied a length of other yarn to the loop (with an open loop, so as to be able to replace it easily when/if needed). Threading the leader through the flyer hooks and orifice was a breeze; with the openness of the metal loops in the flyer hooks, and the length of the opening atop the orifice tube, no hook was really necessary at any point. Sliding flyer hooks which are also able to be twisted around on the flyer arms are a major selling point for any wheel in my book; this allows me the most fine-grained control of my wind-on, enabling me to fill bobbins completely while really fine-tuning draw-in as well. Sliding flyer hooks, preferably adjustable in the sense that they can be rotated on the arm, are a personal requirement for me for any production wheel. I also find there are advantages to be had from not needing a hook to thread a flyer and orifice; first of all, no hook to lose, and second of all, no hook to find if you need to rethread it due to a break or what have you.
The Victoria’s orifice height is the lowest of any wheel I can recall spinning on! Seated on a typical sofa, the orifice is just barely above knee height. However, it’s angled up slightly, and the orifice tube itself is long. To my surprise, the lower orifice height actually proved beneficial, lengthening my potential drafting range and the distance between my hands and the orifice, compensating more than I anticipated for a top speed slower than is my usual choice.
Expecting that there would be at least a little break-in, I opted to start with a fairly pedestrian yarn: I took about half an ounce of commercial merino top, split it roughly in half, and spun it from the fold into a single that felt comfortable with languid treadling at the medium ratio. I put half on one bobbin, and half on another, and then put those onto the lazy kate / bobbin holder and plied them onto the third. This allowed me to check out each bobbin and give them all a chance to get a bit broken in. Each bobbin had a tiny bit of a tendency to grab the monofilament at first. After verifying there was no abnormal wear on the monofilament, and no definite burrs or anything like that on the bobbins, I simply spun away.
On the initial runs for each bobbin, there was a mild tendency to catch the brake band; however this was gone by the time I had about 75 yards of yarn onto the first, and eliminated with a tiny bit of wax on the second, down in the groove for the brake band. The problem was more marked on the initial plying run; as suggested by the instructions that came with the wheel, I rerouted the brake band so that it included a cross (meaning that the direction of spin was opposed in relation to where the spring on the brake band is located). This did make the scotch tension more responsive; however this particular bobbin also made a little bit of a whirring-scraping noise. Having encountered that before on other wheels, I applied a tiny drop of spinning wheel oil directly to the bobbin groove while plying. I suspect that changing to an all-cotton brake band would also eliminate any such noise. When the monofilament wears out, that’s probably what I’ll replace it with.
The scotch tension knob is pretty sensitive, though it could turn a little more smoothly in its hole, to facilitate minor adjustments. I’d like to give it a little longer to break in than I’ve given it so far; in another week or two, if it doesn’t turn a bit more freely, I may try a tiny bit of beeswax on it.
Treadle action is incredibly smooth and easy; I was able to operate the wheel with ease while sitting in a rocking recliner, without causing myself to rock! By the time I was done plying the first yarn, there was a mild squeak coming from the treadle area. This took me a while to track down; however, to track it down, I picked up the small, lightweight wheel and operated the treadles with the wheel essentially laying in my lap and my ear to it while watching things move. It turned out to be the pin connecting the footman rod connector to the right-hand treadle, rubbing against the wood in the footman rod at one particular point during the stroke. I ran a super-fine emery board through the crevice and applied a single drop of synthetic lubricant (I’m sure beeswax would have worked equally well). This squeak would, I’m sure, have worked itself out in another few days of break-in.
When treadling at over 100 treadles per minute — not a speed you’d sustain for long! — I did manage to get some vibration and wobble from the wheel. Short of that, however, nothing — and the wheel did not walk or slide on a hardwood floor at normal speeds, and did very well with being placed on a somewhat uneven surface.
So how does Victoria travel? Well, I packed it up and took it with me over to the in-laws for Christmas dinner, and spun there for a while as well. Since we were also taking presents and part of Christmas dinner, vehicle space was a little limited, and the wheel rode on my lap in its carrying case, outside pocket containing my small carry-around bag (don’t call it a purse! it mostly carries my spindle and fiber!), a pound of Falkland top, and about 3 ounces of fresh sock batt seconds. Setup, spinning, and packing up were completely unobtrusive.
By the time I was done with the second yarn (sock yarn from my own blend), I’d found one more idiosyncracy, which in truth only gave me greater appreciation for the attention to detail Louet put into this wheel. The brake band attaches to the scotch tension knob with a small screw, and the flyer hooks’ nylon rings are 2, maybe 3 mm thick. In one specific position, it is possible to get the nylon ring to touch that screw on the scotch tension knob, making a very quiet clicking sound! This did not interfere with operation at all while spinning, even spinning very fine yarn; and moving the flyer hook or turning the tension knob the tiniest increment eliminated it. This discovery came close on the heels of me concluding that it wasn’t a good idea for me to adjust the scotch tension brake band while the flyer was in motion (ow). Later, packing a bobbin to the max with plied yarn, I did manage to run across the slight clicking again and knock the tension knob loose; a minor surprise, but a total non-issue, something I mention only to illustrate just how carefully fitted this wheel is; you literally could not pack more into the space available, and the engineering and fit and finish are exceptional.
Discovering that, though, caused me to really look closely at the layout of the wheel. Clearances for all moving parts really push the limit of what you can pack into the space available. I wouldn’t have thought that it was possible to get good operation out of something with such tight clearances; in places they are even tighter than the Journey Wheel, which for me sets the standards in “packing a lot of function into a tiny package.” That said, though, you could say one limitation the Victoria will have if used as a primary wheel is that there’ll never be a jumbo flyer; the flyer provided is as large as you could get on there. However, this is not a major limitation, as bobbin capacity is more generous than I’d have expected, being similar to if not greater than that of a standard Ashford bobbin when pushed to the limit, even with bulky novelty yarn wound on pretty loosely.
Untensioned on the flyer shaft, the bobbins do make a rather annoying squealing sound, which the instructions do mention and explain is normal; they did so as well on an untensioned vertical lazy kate as well as an untensioned horizontal one with metal shafts, but did not do so on my Will Taylor tensioned (also vertical) lazy kate. The bobbin rack/lazy kate supplied with Victoria holds the bobbins only by the ends, and is totally silent. To my surprise despite its light weight, it was also extremely stable and didn’t have a tendency to scoot around, due to good-sized rubber feet. Yarn wound off the bobbins on it very smoothly when plying even at varying speeds such as for the boucle, and the lazy kate didn’t slip even when I wound skeins from it very quickly. Winding one skein, rather than taking the bobbin off and carrying it over near where I usually skein my yarn, or carrying my skeiner to the wheel, I simply carried the Victoria to the skeiner — and imagine my surprise when I realized that the Victoria, set up and with a full bobbin on it, was noticeably lighter in hand than my freestanding Fricke floor skeiner!
How Does It Stack Up To Competition?
For usability and scope of capabilities, I would rate it as roughly similar to a Journey Wheel, but lighter, though it takes longer to set up and pack up, and lacks double drive or a single treadle option, and larger-footed spinners may find it cramped in the treadle area as a result, even though it can be worked with only one treadle easily. Ergonomically the wheel is excellent, and extremely low impact, with smoothness and ease of treadle action comparable to most wheels in the $700+ range. It lacks the sheer bobbin capacity and versatility of a Majacraft wheel, but is substantially smaller than most and lighter even than the Gem. Compared to the Lendrum, it’s faster to set up and take down, but not as versatile in terms of speeds, though I found Victoria’s flyer design is a little friendlier. Smaller, lighter, quieter and smoother in operation than the Ashford Joy, bobbin capacity for the Victoria is similar if not larger than Ashford’s standard bobbins, in part due to sliding flyer hooks which enable the spinner to fill the bobbin evenly.
I spun 6 yarns with equal ease and comfort, encountering real limits only when spinning loose camel down into fine yarn; for my liking when it comes to down fibers, I just want more speed than Victoria can provide right now. I expect the high speed kit will remedy this when it becomes available in 2007. As a longtime critic of bobbin lead, and someone who has ruled out a number of very nice Louet wheels for myself in the past, I can absolutely say those issues do not exist with the Victoria, as evidenced by an 11-gram, 195-yard skein of approximately 7500 ypp 2-ply tussah silk (pictured at left, the finished 2-ply yarn wrapped around the edge of a penny).
The Actual Opinion
The bottom line is that I’ll use the heck out of this wheel, and would recommend it as a travel wheel for any spinner, and as a primary wheel for spinners with limited space. I would also rate it highly for spinners for whom ergonomics are at issue. If spinning down fibers or cotton are your primary goals, wait and see on the high speed kit; if super-bulky is your main thing, you might prefer a larger wheel. However, if you’re looking for all-around versatility in a tiny, lightweight package, you can’t go wrong with Louet’s newest wheel, which I also expect to be entirely maintenance-free after break-in, needing nothing more than a very occasional replacement of scotch tension brake band. And if you’re a flyer lead fan or super-fine spinner long disappointed in bobbin lead wheels, this is the wheel you’ve wished Louet would make.
Here are the yarns I spun during my 5-day road test of the Louet Victoria S95/S96:
2-ply white fingering/light sock weight yarn, from commercial merino top: 18 grams / .625 oz, 125 yards — 3200 yards per pound
This year, I hadn’t planned on any knit, crochet, or woven Christmas stuff. And usually when I do make such plans, they’re for crochet items, which are significantly faster. But then, as it happened, I had a yarn that I wanted to swatch for photos, and so sometime in late October I decided I’d combine that need to swatch with a knit scarf for my third grader’s teacher — it’s her first year as a full teacher, our son isn’t the easiest student in the world to teach, and she’s really been going above and beyond in my opinion, and I usually do like to give a handmade fiber gift to his teachers. Or chocolate. So, I started lackadaisically knitting up 200 yards of the handpaint tussah single into a fairly lazy little improvised lacy diamonds kind of thing, which since I wasn’t knitting on it with any great regularity, I just barely managed to finish yesterday afternoon.
In lieu of blocking — which lacy knitting truly requires — I opted to wash it, and iron it dry. This worked out very nicely, however, and the finished scarf was not only thus dry in time to wrap and send in to school with our son on his last day of school before winter break, but super-flat, shiny, and wispy — and almost 8 inches wide and 5 feet long.
More of this same yarn is available in my eBay store, here.If that link doesn’t work out for you, just go straight to the store home, and enter “raw silk” in the search box. The handspun, hand-dyed tussah singles I routinely list for sale would also make similar scarves, but are finer; whereas this scarf was knit on US size 6 / 4mm needles, I’d recommend a US 4 / 3.5mm needle for the handspun tussah singles.
Other than that scarf, right after Thanksgiving, my better half mentioned — as he has more than once in the past — this one Christmas when his mother knit everyone in the extended family stockings, and how those had been the best stockings ever, and they were SO stretchy that as Christmas stockings they just were so great, and the next time I was talking to his mother, maybe I might ask her for that pattern. Indeed, I thought, I should finally do that.
Unfortunately, the pattern was lost some time ago, but she was able to lend me a finished stocking, from which to reconstruct the pattern. Armed with the actual object, the web, and — believe it or not — Red Heart Super Saver and sparkly acrylic “holiday” yarn, I set out to make three of them. These, I narrowly completed the night before last, and they now grace the mantel which Chad had put up specifically as a platform from which stockings could be hung.
Edward’s was by far the most annoying; I can’t give “Red Heart Holiday” a particularly glowing review as yarn, nor is the resulting fabric terribly appealing; but it was the yarn he chose! And yes, folks, this handspinner is totally unrepentant about using cheap acrylic yarn for this project — Christmas stockings, after all, will be stored untouched and unseen in a dark place for most of the year, should be machine-washable if needed, and the last thing you want is to be unpacking the Christmas box and discover it’s been irretrievably moth damaged. Nothing eats that kind of yarn.
Depending on my level of ambition, however, I may redo these stockings in the coming year. Or the year after that. Certain things about them just disappoint the perfectionist in me a little.
Of course, there is a “well, that didn’t happen in time” to mention: a week and change ago, my son charmingly requested a Santa hat to wear to school, and I even bought some truly heinous but indestructible yarn for the purpose, but it just didn’t happen. I’m afraid December, and the last part of November, were largely lost to me due to dental work which I can really only term as extreme — until last week, I never knew it was possible to get half a root canal before having to be referred out to the super-specialist for the remainder of it. And never in my self-aware life have I subsisted for over a week on nothing but broth, yogurt, and pudding, nor had to commit to painkillers for weeks at a time. Here’s hoping I never do again!
Spinning wheels are pulley systems. Changing ratios is basically the same principle as changing gears on a bicycle, except instead of sprockets and chains, you’ve got pulleys and drive bands.
Simply put, a ratio of 5:1 means that the drive wheel’s circumference is 5 times that of the circumference of the thing being driven (like the whorl). For every time that the drive wheel completes one rotation, the thing being driven (whether it’s flyer whorl, or bobbin) will rotate 5
times. So if you treadled such that the drive wheel completed 30 rotations (or revolutions) per minute, the flyer or bobbin would complete 5 times that many, or 150. Your 30 rpm at the drive wheel becomes 150 rpm at the flyer or bobbin.
If you want your flyer or bobbin to be going faster than that, in order to make more twist go into your yarn faster as you are spinning, without different ratios, your only option would be to increase the speed of the drive wheel, say by treadling faster on a treadle-powered wheel. Increasing your speed to where you are going 60 rpm at the drive wheel would then increase flyer or bobbin speed in a directly linear way, still at a ratio of 5:1 — so now you’re going 300 rpm at the flyer.
But, let’s say that you have another ratio available to you, of 7 to 1. In this case, the drive wheel’s circumference is 7 times that of the driven object. Simply changing from the 5:1 ratio to the 7:1 ratio, without changing the speed at which you’re treadling or turning the drive wheel, changes you from going 30 rpm at the drive wheel and 150 rpm at the driven end, to 30 rpm at the drive wheel and 210 rpm at the driven end.
So, an application of this principle: let’s say that I want to spin a really fine and high-twist yarn at a rate of, say, 1500 rpm at the flyer. To do this with a drive ratio of 5:1 on a treadle powered wheel where each treadle stroke represents a full rotation of the drive wheel, I’d have to treadle 300 times a minute!! Yowza! There’s no way that’s humanly possible. But at a ratio of 30:1, I’d only have to treadle 50 times a minute, to get 1500 rpm at the driven end. 😉
To sum up, different ratios allow you to get twist into your yarn at different rates while you are spinning, without changing the speed at which you treadle (or turn the drive wheel).
Going from a larger drive wheel circumference to a smaller driven item circumference, you get the biggest speed gains, and fastest flyer/bobbin rotation relative to treadling speed. Going from smallest drive wheel circumference to largest driven item circumference, you get the slowest flyer/bobbin speed relative to treadling speed. On most modern spinning wheels, this means if you have your drive band going around the largest groove on the drive wheel, and the smallest groove on your whorl, you’re going as fast as that wheel can go; if you’re going around the smallest groove on the drive wheel, and the largest groove on the whorl, you’re going as slow as that wheel can go.
Similar to bicycle gears, some ratios also can require more effort and force than others, just to get around — think of shifting to a low gear, for low-effort pedaling to get uphill, and then a higher gear, for greater speed on a flat stretch once you get going. The same effect is in play in pulley systems, but as implemented in spinning wheels, you typically need to be pushing the limits of your system in order to detect these effects to any great degree.
Leslie’s sweater yarn is now complete, and shipped off to her! I’m left with three partly-full bobbins of single-ply yarn, which I’ll finish up and keep for myself, and two batts that I expect I’ll spin very fine, again, for myself.
By completion, about 45 hours total were spent on the yarn, from dyeing and blending through test spinning, swatching, iteration, on to production spinning, production plying, skeining and measuring, finishing, and final put-up in 6 center-pull balls, 5 of them at 250 yards and one at 350 yards of higher-twist, just slightly finer yarn intended for cuffs and collars.
Roughly a third of that time could be considered prototyping; producing a similar amount of very similar yarn in the future would probably take around 30 hours.
So, some would ask, is it really worth it to produce a yarn like this, which at first blush looks very much like a millspun yarn, given that it takes that sort of time even for an experienced spinner like me?
I say it is (and hopefully, Leslie will agree when she has the yarn in hand). I certainly put that sort of time into spinning for my own projects, but I will grant you that not all yarn consumers would immediately believe it to be worth the cost. But ask yourself: have you ever worked your tail off knitting or crocheting a project, worn it a few times, and then found it was far more delicate than you expected, and just didn’t hold up? Or washed it and found it completely changed? Heaven knows I have, and it’s a major reason why I don’t often use commercial yarns for serious projects anymore (but stay tuned, you’ll soon see my commercial yarn projects, and those will probably surprise you). In any case, it’s heartbreaking to put a lot of work into a handmade garment you love, only to find you have to relegate it to the “very occasional wear” category or treat it with extreme kid gloves.
If I’ve done my job right (and I have), that won’t be the fate of Leslie’s sweater. She can rest assured her sweater will fit her lifestyle and last her for many years. This is a type of longevity that most of us no longer expect from anything in our lives, let alone from our clothing — but it wasn’t always so. I myself, as a child, wore sweaters that were made by my great-grandmother, worn by my grandmother, and then by mother, before I wore them. We’re talking about children’s clothes, and household objects, that were made when Babe Ruth still played for the Red Sox. Heck, I own a quilt and an afghan that were made before women had the right to vote in the United States.
There are many factors involved in textile longevity, and I’m not going to promise Leslie that her great-granddaughter’ll be taking that sweater with her to colonize Mars or something. But I absolutely can promise her she can treat her hand-knit sweater like a regular wearable wardrobe item, and expect it to outlast her blue jeans. Her biggest worry should be if it’s going to go out of style, not whether she dares to put it on for fear of it wearing out.
So, yes, I say, it’s worth it to put that kind of time into spinning a well-constructed traditional yarn. Sure, it’s a custom colour, a custom blend of fiber, a one-of-a-kind yarn nobody else has and you can be certain you’ll never run into anyone else with the same sweater; and sure, those are great things. They’re just not the single biggest reason to spend an entire work week (or sometimes more) of an expert spinner’s time on a true designer yarn.
A few weeks back, I embarked on an exciting custom spinning project for a longtime friend, who wrote me to say she was ready to start knitting the sweater of her dreams, and did I have the right yarn for it by any chance? I wrote her back immediately telling her I insisted she let me design and spin her the perfect yarn for this specific sweater, and including a list of questions.
Do you have a pattern in mind, and if so, what yarn does it call for? The Debbie Bliss Classic Jacket, which calls for Debbie Bliss Cotton Cashmere, which should knit to a gauge of 5.5 stitches to the inch, or more specifically, a 4″ square (10cm square) should contain 30 rows and 22 stitches, using US size 5 needles.
Tell me about how you plan to wear it, care for it, and what you have in mind ideally.
Not too fuzzy. More sleek than fuzzy. I like some fuzz but I also like to see my stitches. Some texture but not a ton. A little lumpy is fine. I made a sweater out of Manos del Uruguay this year — my big project. I loved it. But I don’t want something so thick and thin as that. A few knots or lumps here and there are fine, even desirable, but no sense in me making something in a very similar yarn to what I made this year.
No shedding. Hand wash. It’s baggy. I’m going to wear it with everything — white blouses and skirts for work, white t shirts and jeans and boots the rest of the time. I like really soft yarn. Give or what you call memory is important to me. Warm isn’t that important to me. I live in California still. But I do like wool, natural fibers for sure. If it is warm, great too.
Reviewing these needs, it was clear that major design elements for this yarn should be strength and a fair amount of resistance to pilling. It would need a comfortable balance between sweatery drape and being lightweight, make a firm fabric with a gentle hand, be next-to-skin soft and have plenty of bounce. As for colour, we were shooting for a variegated cornflower blue.
For the fibers, I chose to blend a midrange commercial merino top (64’s grade), natural-coloured tussah silk top, and light brown loose Chinese cashmere.
Step one was to ballpark the amount of each that I’d need, and dye them. I went with 10 ounces of merino, 8 ounces of silk, and a little over 2 ounces of cashmere, each of which I split into separate small batches of varying sizes, and dyed in different shades of blue, from electric and robin’s egg to royal blue to violet and deep eggplant. With each natural coloured fiber being a little different, and in particular the cashmere being brown, the resulting range of blues encompassed probably 30 shades in all.
Once dyed and dried, it was time to blend the fibers with my drum carder, the trusty Cardzilla, a Strauch doublewide motorized model, the muscle car of carders, complete with footprint gas pedal and stickers from MSD and Edelbrock (okay, those parts actually went on the ’72 Pontiac, but the stickers belonged on Cardzilla). And Cardzilla’s foot pedal is still just round — still haven’t found the right size footprint one, but I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled.
After several passes through Cardzilla, I had a total of 14 batts weighing 1.5 to 2.5 ounces each, all three fibers evenly distributed throughout all of them, but with some variegation in colours carefully preserved.
At 50% merino, 40% tussah silk, and 10% cashmere, these batts are light, fluffy, lofty, and incredibly soft. Carrying them around from one lighting zone to another, the colours in them shift. I allowed for extra fiber for sampling and swatching purposes, but no sooner did I finish these batts than I found myself really wishing I’d doubled the recipe, so to speak, and planned to spin some of this for a sweater for myself. With any luck I’ll end up with enough left over for a scarf or a shawl. The blend is totally unfair and irresistible. It’s similar to one I’ve done many times before in natural colours, saving the dyeing for later… it’s just a really delightful blend and I’m thrilled with it (hopefully, Leslie will be too).
With the blend complete, it was time to do some sampling. I spun one batt up in a not-so-fine single, which in turn I plied in several ways, then swatched, to get a sense of exactly how I wanted to spin and ply. To do this quickly from one bobbin, I first wound a center-pull ball, then wound several other balls from this one: another center-pull ball with two strands (this was the largest), a triple-stranded Peruvian-style ball, and a smaller double-stranded Peruvian-style ball.
I set aside about 30 yards of the single to swatch as well, just for kicks, even though I knew there was no way it would knit to gauge, nor would it have the appropriate wear characteristics. This single, I had allowed some variegation in thickness as Leslie had said she found some variegation in texture desirable. In any case, I wanted to test a 2-ply yarn, a 3-ply yarn, and a cabled yarn (the 2-ply, plied with itself). I felt it was most likely that the 3-ply would be the yarn we were after, but I have also had great results from similar blends in a 2-ply yarn so I figured that was worth testing as well; and as for the cabled yarn, while I was fairly sure that would be denser than we wanted, I also thought this blend would just make a beautiful cabled yarn and had to give it a whirl.
Single-ply yarn, swatched on US size 3 needles:
Top left: the yarn; top right, the swatch in progress; bottom, the swatch, backlit so you can see clearly how open and thick-and-thin this looks. It’s pretty, but not strong or long-wearing or sweater fabric or remotely close to the gauge we’re after!
2-ply yarn, swatched on US size 4 needles:
Top left: 2-ply yarn; top right: swatch knit on US size 4 needles, 24 stitches to 4 inches/10 cm; bottom, swatch backlit to show consistency and fabric density
3-ply yarn, swatched on US size 5 needles:
Top left: 3-ply yarn; Top right: backlit swatch on US size 5 needles; bottom, swatch with measuring tape showing gauge, 18 stitches to 4 in / 10 cm
4-ply cabled yarn, swatched on US size 5 needles
Top: cabled yarn sample: the 2-ply yarn shown above, plied with itself in the opposite direction of the original ply (same direction as spin). Bottom: swatch knitted on US size 5 needles, 4 stitches to the inch.
The final analysis
In the final analysis, and after consulting with Leslie about whether or not she’s a tight knitter, and re-swatching the 3-ply on size 4 needles myself, I deemed the 3-ply yarn to have the right drape and wear properties, and made the decision to thin down the production singles a little and do a 3-ply yarn.
I’m now entering production mode for the yarn; see the start of a single at left.
One of the questions I hear often these days is “I have a spindle with no hook or notch to hold the yarn — how do I work this half-hitch thing I’ve heard about?”
I grew up spinning this way, on Peruvian low whorl spindles which are as simple a spindle as you can get: a stick with a weight near the bottom. Although I do now often use other kinds of spindles, including ones with hooks and/or notches, I still find the Peruvian low whorl spindle with the half-hitch on the smooth shaft to be the fastest.
Why? Because there’s no looking involved — you can do it all by feel. This is great for spinning while you’re doing other things, like walking around. When you need to wind on more yarn, you simply flick the half-hitch off the end of the spindle shaft with your thumb, and it disappears immediately (even if you’ve used more than one) . If it doesn’t slip off easily, just pinch it between your thumb and forefinger and slip it off.
Being comfortable with this technique allows a spinner to use a wider range of tools, such as Andean spindles or Turkish spindles, neither of which traditionally use a hook or notch. You can also put it to work doing things like turning your top whorl spindle upside down and spinning it like a low whorl, for improvising a spindle from any stick and moderately balanced weight, or dealing with problems like a broken spindle or missing hook. You can use it to secure your cop (the spun yarn you’ve wound onto your spindle) for transporting your spinning, too. Lastly, while I do love some of my top whorl spindles, all of which have notches and hooks in them, I do find that when I have them in my carry-around bag, sometimes the hook will get caught on things and cause me to become irritated; and hey, hooks are commonly made of metal and you know how those airline screener folks are these days — but they’re usually pretty easygoing about letting you have a stick.
The half-hitch can be done essentially one-handed (indeed, I did it one-handed to take these photos!) and with practice, is one single fluid motion. For demonstration purposes, I broke it up into 10 steps which are easier to describe than a single motion.
The mechanics of putting the half-hitch on the spindle shaft are essentially the same as one of the simplest cast-on methods for knitting, the half-hitch cast-on, or single cast-on. The only difference is that you most likely have your spindle shaft held vertical instead of horizontal (like you’d have needles), and you should only need one or two half-hitches to hold your yarn securely. Here it is, in pictures (featuring me and my dye-stained fingers!):
Step 1: Yarn goes over your thumb.
Step 2: Yarn comes back under your thumb.
Step 3: Yarn comes back over your thumb.
Step 4: Hook your thumb to hold your loop.
Step 5: Bring your hooked thumb, with the loop around it, up between the yarn coming off the spindle and the L between your thumb and forefinger, and this is what you’ll see.
Step 6: Put the tip of your thumb on the end of your spindle shaft.
Step 7: Start sliding the loop off your thumb, right onto the spindle shaft.
Step 8: Pull the half-hitch tight.
Step 9: This is really an alternate view of Step 8. Note that the loop goes OVER the yarn that you’re about to keep spinning; this is what makes this work.
Step 10: Once you’ve pulled your half-hitch tight, this is more or less how it will look. Use additional half-hitches if you find that this slips off too easily.
A few final tips: slippery yarn very well may call for more than one half-hitch. Use as many as you like, they’ll all come undone when they slide off the shaft. You can also reverse these directions so that instead of having your thumb under the yarn in step 1, your thumb is over it; play with this to find which way is most comfortable for you, because that’ll be where your speed comes from with this technique.