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A little bit about plying, part 1

I’m starting a whole series on plying now, by popular demand, and because it’s a skillset and a set of thought processes that is often overlooked when we talk about spinning. Plying is a big subject and not one that can be boiled down into a handful of simple rules, alas. To begin with, Jen commented and asked:

Your fiber is SO nice to work with! I just finished my second sock batt this weekend and plied it (tried to anyway). I’ve not been spinning very long and I don’t feel like I ply correctly. Previously my yarns have been light and lofty, I made an attempt to put more twist in my ply this weekend to get more of a ’sock’ yarn and think I might have gotten carried away with the twist. Can you offer some advice? How do we know how much twist to put in? Could you maybe do a walk through on how to get a nice ply?

Well, I guess the first thing I’d say (other than thank you, Jen!) is to not assume you’ve put in more plying twist than you want. To illustrate this point, I took pictures during the finishing stages of my most recent yarn, and pictures of some other recent yarn that just so happen to illustrate this point nicely. I’ll start with the latter:

Would you believe these are the same singles from the same material? Really! The difference in grist is completely because of plying. Here’s another view of different bits of the yarn:

Now, for my preferences, the pink yarn is a little underplied, and just barely at the point of having enough plying twist in it. It’s sort of hat or sweater yarn, puffy and loose with a lot of loft to it. There’s nothing wrong with it, but I prefer a more firmly plied yarn — I like the fabric I get better, it wears better, and to be honest, I just like it better. The purply-blue yarn, on the other hand… I like that one.

So let’s talk a minute about what’s the same and different about these 2 skeins of yarn. Both were spun from test batches of Falkland top which I’d dyed with low water immersion, rinsed aggressively, and air dried. Both were spun on the same wheel, with the same drafting methods, ratios, settings, everything the same. Both skeins weigh 70 grams exactly, or about 2.5 ounces. The multicoloured pinks and orange one (colourway Dawn) is 254 yards long; the deep purply blue one (violet from here on out, not a named colourway) is 261 yards long.


…this one comes out to 11 wraps per inch, and…

…this one comes out to 16.

Now, to be fair, there is a very slight difference in the grist of the singles, as evidenced by example 1, Dawn, being 254 yards long and example 2, Violet, being 261 yards long. So if we were to say that I had 508 yards of Dawn singles and 522 yards of Violet singles, the difference in yards yielded was about 2.7%, and pretty much unmeasurable in the singles if I’d measured them for grist before plying by using the wraps per inch method. These were also not terribly high twist singles; I’d call ’em moderate/medium twist. But if you look at the plied yarn, and figure there’s a 2.7% difference in grist over the length of the singles spun, compared to a 5 wpi difference in the plied yarn… if we use Dawn as our baseline, the addition of plying twist gave us 45% more wraps per inch with Violet. To think about it another way, if we were to say that Violet has a diameter of 1/16 of an inch ( .0625) and Dawn has a diameter of 1/11 of an inch (.09), less plying twist in Dawn gave us a yarn that is 33% thicker than Violet.

So, what factors other than twist are in play here, and how does the amount of plying twist affect the finished yarn?

Well, the first consideration is the fiber: Falkland top, commercially prepped, a medium wool with a fair amount of crimp to it. As it happens, I knew going into this exercise that this particular fiber has a huge amount of POOF to it. Moreso than many fibers, this one will, when washed, puff up quite a bit if given half a chance. In a moderate-twist singles, or a plied yarn with less plying twist, it’s got the chance to do that. In a high-twist singles or a tightly plied yarn, it’s not going to have the chance to poof so much, because the twist will trap the crimp and poof tendencies it imparts.

If we did the same exercise with different fiber (and I’ll see if I can’t come up with a good example soon) we’d see different results. But in general, the balance between crimp and twist in wools is a huge part — perhaps the biggest part — in what a skilled spinner can manipulate to make yarn behave different ways. To an extent, being able to take advantage of this when you do your fiber selection for a given project just depends on knowing the fibers and how they act, and that’ll mostly take experience to develop.

For more reading about crimp, twist, and their interactions, check out Mabel Ross and Peter Teal. Instead of going into lots more detail here, I’ll just move on to say that the functional difference between Dawn and Violet, other than their finished wpi, is that Dawn is puffy and lofty, while Violet is smoother and uses the same forces Dawn used to puff itself up, to be springy yarn with bounce and elasticity. Violet has no choice but to stay denser, but the crimp in the fiber acts against that density to be a stretchier yarn. If you put your hands inside the loop of Dawn’s skein and pull apart till it’s stretched taut, you won’t have a lot of travel; if you do the same with Violet, you’ll have more. When Dawn stretches out, it’s going to thin down a bit. When Violet stretches, it’ll stay similar in thickness. Dawn has more fiber ends and surfaces not held in place by twist in the ply; Violet’s individual fibers are held more closely in check and won’t be able to rub against each other quite so much.

Neither of these characteristics is inherently better than the other, but they are suited for different purposes. Violet’s density, elasticity, and tougher wear resistance make it a good choice for socks, mittens, or garments for people who are rough on their clothes (like 9-year-old kids). Dawn will be easier to felt or full, and there’s more air moving through it — in some respects, depending on how things are worked up of course, Dawn will insulate better and be warmer. It would make a great hat for those reasons, or a snuggly warm sweater.

Many millspun sock yarns make themselves springy by manipulating these considerations. Take a crimpy wool low-twist singles, and ply it really tight: you’re going to get bouncy yarn. Millspuns use this in other ways too: take a crimpy wool moderate-twist singles, and ply it loosely, and you’ll get a more drapy yarn that can do things like block out huge in knitted lace, or one that blooms and puffs up to be thicker in grist without containing more fiber. But even though millspun commercial yarns can of course play with these qualities, the mill will never have the range of options or control that you do as a handspinner. What if, for example, you were to change the amount of plying twist throughout the yarn, in orderly sequences? You would have a finished yarn that would behave differently, and work up differently, within the same object — you could make one single yarn that puffs up in places in a hat, and hunkers down being elasticky in others.

Of course, there are limitations and things to consider. For instance, even though your plying twist can make a huge difference in what the finished yarn is like, you shouldn’t rely on only that, as some of the millspun yarns actually do! While the plying twist will trap many fiber ends and keep them from moving, you still need to have a fair amount of twist in your singles to be counterbalanced by the plying twist, or else you’re going to see premature wear. This is part of what the premise of the “balanced yarn” looks to address — you want the plying twist to have a clear relationship with the spinning twist in order to achieve a stable yarn. You’ll generally also need to have both of those amounts of twists give at least a passing nod to the fiber’s properties, such as crimp, staple length, and so on.

However, I’m heretical in some respects about the whole “balanced yarn” premise. Just picture me as a pirate captain in a Hollywood movie waving my hand and saying, “…Guidelines, really.” The doctrine of the balanced yarn states that you always want to have your yarn end up so that the fibers in it are back in their natural, relaxed state and so you put in only the amount of plying twist that takes the spinning twist back to that condition. However, there exist numerous examples of yarn, and entire yarn traditions, which diverge from this doctrine, and all the references to it in so many words that I’m familiar with are from the 20th century onwards.

Here’s a merino sock yarn of moderate-to-high twist in both spin and ply (because merino is a fiber prone to pilling, more twist reduces that likelihood). Though the spinning twist is moderate to high by US/European standards, the plying twist is outright high. If let to sit untended, this 2-yard skein of yarn shrinks in length immediately, from being about a yard long to being about 2 feet, 7 inches long. Pick it up and stretch it, and it goes back to being about a yard long… relax your hands and it snaps back to the shorter length. It’s springy. It has bounce. But it also has sufficient twist to keep the singles together under wear, and that combination of things makes it a good yarn for socks, from a fiber that feels nice but doesn’t tend to wear incredibly well if spun to “balanced yarn” specifications.

“But what about what everyone says about balanced yarns being essential to prevent bias in knitting?” you may be thinking. To that I say, swatch it. Seriously — swatch it. Much of that, too, depends on the state the yarn is in when you work with it, and how you knit. You would have to be really, really far out on a limb to see bias from most plied yarns, in my experience. If not-balanced plying truly caused the kind of bias it’s purported to in knitting, then you’d be seeing it in a large number of the presently-popular high-end millspun sock yarns! You’d be seeing it in some of the most popular lace knitting yarns out there, which feature less plying twist than spinning twist. And technically it is there in those examples — but the effect is insufficient to cause the disastrous skew it’s purported to cause, in my experience. Call it the yarn world’s Coriolis Effect myth (that’s the one about water swirling down the drain differently depending on which side of the Equator you’re on). The effect exists — but isn’t as powerful as the mythos suggests, and other factors have a huge impact. And worst case, if we’re talking about sock yarn here, what would you rather have: socks that bag and fall down, or socks with a smidgen of skew that goes away when you put them on and they stay where they go, and hold up to real world wearing?

Outside the scope of modern-day first world knitting, too, there are all sorts of uses — even within the US and European-derived textile traditions — for yarns which don’t conform to the balanced yarn premise. These are uses with long histories, habits, practicalities, and rationales — and they’re worth exploring for any handspinner who wants to really gain the kind of control that allows you to produce exactly the right yarn for a given job.

So, how do you ply and control how much plying twist is getting in there? What are some mechanical considerations, how can you tell if you’re getting it right, and what are some common plying questions and answers? Well, that’s my teaser for Part 2 of the plying series, and you’ll have to tune back in for that.

But it might feature this yarn…

…if the sun comes out and makes for good pictures, if it dries fully while I’m at the dentist, and if the pictures of black yarn come out decently enough. At least one of these plying articles is going to require a marled example to show how things look, and the next one may be it.

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Making A Tweed Blend

Well, let’s see if I can’t get this one online before dashing off to the dentist — yep, the dentist again! But it’s nothing new; just a checkup (hopefully the last one) on how my dental implant is doing, after which hopefully we schedule further work towards the elimination of the gap in my mouth that was a broken crown with broken root. It’s been since Thanksgiving with this round of battle with that tooth, which has a long and storied history… though it’s gone now, replaced by an implant, which sometime this summer will sport an attractive and functional crown. The gap has been there since January and I’m growing mighty tired of it.

Anyway, today we’re talking a little bit about how one makes a blend to spin up into a tweedy yarn. First, what’s a tweed?

A rough, irregular, soft and flexible, unfinished shaggy woollen named for the tweed river that separates England from Scotland. It is made of a two-and-two twill weave, right-hand or left-hand in structure. Outstanding tweeds include Bannockburn, English, Harris, Irish, Linton, Manx, Scotch and Donegal.

Fashion Dictionary

A tweed yarn, in brief, is a yarn one might use to create such a fabric. Like the fabric, it should be rough, irregular, soft and flexible. A tweed yarn can have tweed elements which add texture, tweed elements which add colour, or both.

It’s interesting to note that some textile experts say tweed fabrics are not named after the Tweed river, but are instead so called because the Scots spelling of “twill” was once “tweel” and a misspelling happened on an invoice. Actually, there’s all sorts of interesting debates one can have about the notion of “tweed yarn,” but we’ll leave those for another day (or in the comments). True tweed fabrics are one of those things like champagne — the grapes have to come from the right part of France, or it’s a sparkling wine. So there is a lot of discussion to be had about the subject, and I won’t claim to be a True Tweed Authority.

Moving along, I decided to produce a blend for a textural and colour-based tweed 2-ply yarn, using some smallish amounts of assorted fibers that I had lying around.

Some superwash wool top… which I added some bombyx silk seconds…

…and then more superwash top in a bright red that doesn’t go with the greens or the purple at all…

…followed up with some yellow superwash (are we talking crazy and clashing here or what?)…

…and then, let’s ease back off the shocking contrasts here for a second, and tone things down with some gray alpaca, which will also feel very nice in the resulting yarn…

…and smooth out the colours with white tussah silk. I remember when I started learning to paint with acrylics, I learned you always need 17,000 more tubes of “Titanium White” than any other colour, because white evens things out.

So here are our tweed ingredients:

The greens are our base colour, which will dominate. The red and yellow are contrast elements, as is the bombyx silk, which will clump somewhat in this blend. The alpaca and silk are there for feel, and for smoothing things out colourwise as they’re gray and white.

We start by carefully feeding small bits of pale green onto the carder.

And then the darker green.

Then some pale green again.

Now let’s throw on the bombyx silk seconds!

Look how much those clump up initially!

Next, the alpaca. I know that the alpaca and silk will be happy next to each other and play nice with static in this particular blend as we go.

After the alpaca, the tussah silk, red and yellow superwash, and a bit more of the greens gets added to the mix. By the time all is said and done, we have a horrible looking main drum:

and totally unspinnable, ugly mess of a batt:

So clearly, this needs another pass in order to turn into a spinnable preparation and to mix colours and fibers more.

Breaking the first-pass batt up into smaller pieces, we carefully feed those pieces in until we have a somewhat neater-looking main drum…

See why this needs more carding? Look down into a piece of batt as it lines up for its second pass, and observe the clumping of fibers.

At the end of the second pass, you can see the main drum looks much better than after the first blending pass, but let’s be honest — this is still not a spinnable state.

I mean, you could spin it, but I don’t like it. You’d get novelty effects of course, see…

…but here’s the real problem, that shows up when we split the batt up to prepare for the third pass.

Yes, if you like clumps, you’re done now. But then I rate it a novelty batt and not a tweed batt. Speaking of novelty batts, you can save these bits of carding waste and use them there if you like:

Coming up on pass 3, you can still clearly see clumps everywhere.

If you look closely at the main drum, and see things going kinda diagonally, you’ll know there’s at least one more pass coming up after this, to make sure this spins nicely.

Since colours are also not exactly evenly dispersed, and the batt’s actually too full for one batt, I split it in half…

…and then split those halves in half again…

And I’ll take one from each pile and turn that into a batt, then do it again, for pass 4. Also on pass 4, I add in a little more of the yellow and red contrast elements.

I do this even though I know it consigns me to a fifth pass. This is the only way to get clear bits of contrast flecking in the final yarn. Here’s how things look after that fourth pass.

There are still clumps of the bombyx, too. Bombyx really likes to clump, which is why we set it up to earlier. We want it to clump a little.

What we have now we absolutely could spin, but it’s not up to my standards for a tweed blend yet.

There are still fibers clumping and running crazy through the batt.

This won’t spin up nicely. You’d be chugging along and then BAM…

See? See what I mean? Here it is going in for pass 5, and just look at that ugly snarly bit.

That must be destroyed. Okay, now we’re talking.

Observe how there are still clumps of bombyx silk, though the tussah and alpaca have spread out evenly. Observe how there are still streaks of contrasting colour here and there. These will produce our tweed elements when we spin it up.

First, let me take a moment to say that this is five passes with a carder that really, really does a lot of work with a single pass, and which features fine cloth and brush attachment. Absent these features, the blend would either not be possible, or would take more like 8-10 passes. Tweed blends are nothing if not labour intensive.

Well, so we (and by we I mean “I”) spun it and plied it and here it is, hanging in 2-ply form before washing. I want to take a second here and point out that yes indeed, before washing, this skein kinks up on itself a bit and looks to be twisting. Some people say this is unbalanced. Those people, while entitled to their opinions, are also entitled to yarn which wears like Kleenex. Trust me, this is a soft, drapy, low-twist tweed.

After washing and hanging to dry unweighted, we get this…

Which is also this…

And here’s how it looks up close in direct sun…

So what are the stats? Well, I haven’t measured the wraps per inch but I’ll ballpark ’em at around 15. See? I’m lazy sometimes. This is 590 yards, from 154 grams or 5.25 ounces. Machine washable, too.

From garish contrast and dissonance, we have achieved a yarn which is irregular, yet soft and supple, comfortable but with adequate wear properties for use in lasting garments — a tweed.

Making A Tweed Flickr Photoset

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April’s half over? I’d better make myself look busy.

Well, April has certainly been a busy month so far! I feel like I’m hardly sitting still long enough to get to about 75% of the things I thought I would… in March!

However, I do have a few things to show for my month so far. One of them is this:

Her name is Kaylee (yes, it’s a TV/movie name) and although she looks incredibly sedate and peaceful in all the photos so far, right this second she’s perched on the back of my office chair with her forepaws on my shoulder, trying to eat my hair. Essentially, if she can be caught on film, it’s probably because she’s sleeping!

She’s fitting in well with the big kids, however. She’s a chocolate European Burmese, and she is the playin’est kitten with whom I’ve ever shared a home.

I’m making good progress with spring cleaning and fiber rotation. I try to do it quarterly, but it sometimes ends up pushed out to 3x a year. But in any case, when I do it, every fiber item in the studio must be inspected and gone over; nothing can be allowed to sit in dark corners untouched, unmoved. I’m sure there are a few of you reading this who know exactly why that is — for the rest of you, let us just say that it is as a precaution against The Scourge Which I Shall Not Name, Lest I Invoke It; a pestilence which, the last time it visited, caused me to moan, “Why couldn’t it have been lice instead?” Or zombies.

Anyway, there are logistical considerations to all the materials rotation tasks; silks must have a long-term storage place which doesn’t have direct sunlight on it all the time, for instance, and I keep fibers to which some people react separated from other fibers as well– so the mohair and angora need their own safe spaces, just as cats aren’t allowed in the studio. Those things wouldn’t be true if it were all just fiber for me, but I’d hate for a customer to end up having a reaction despite everybody’s best intentions, so I do what I can.

The spring cleaning sale, ending tomorrow, has been pretty successful — I’m all but out of custom blends! Clearly, you all need me back in the studio slaving over a hot carder, not to mention making sure I have a couple of dye days this week. But here’s a little preview of what you can expect to see coming up for sale Wednesday:

There’s other stuff too, and there might be even more other stuff, if I can manage to get out from under this kitten and get to work today and tomorrow.

Of course, I’ve been spinning and whatnot as well, and doing a little light swatching and sample production…

I spun up some City Lights leftovers, and then — surprise, folks! — chain-plied them. This skein used roughly the contents of 2 batts, and spun up into 195 yards of chain-plied (aka Navajo plied, but I prefer to call it chain plying) yarn at about 10 wpi.

And then I chain-plied more, just to show you all that sometimes, I do things that aren’t what I usually do. Or something. Here’s how April Blizzard looks:

That’s 95 yards of 9 wpi yarn from 1 batt; and I spun it up as part of a photo tutorial on one way to spin from a batt. I’ll be adding to this over time, with additional ways of spinning from batts, but for those of you who have asked where to begin, here’s one place to begin!

And that little project has also resulted in a really interesting exchange with Velma. Go check it out, and weigh in if you’re so inclined!

Oh, and I just remembered: someone else asked me where I’d send a 13 micron merino fleece for processing. Without hesitation, I told her I’d send it to Morro Fleece Works. The next photo here is why; a few times a year I treat myself to something she’s selling, and it’s always been an incredibly good buy, and I’m saying that about having paid $45 a pound for merino. They ain’t what you’d call cheap, but if I had a really incredible fleece I was going to send out, that’s where I’d send it. Because of this:

It’s sad, but that really doesn’t do it justice. But I’m not going to go any further with this right now, because honestly, we’re entering the arena of purely gratuitous fiber porn.

So getting back to some of my spinning and sampling and whatnot, I did two other chain-plied things, one of which is some Indian Summer tussah that’s getting made into a Something right now, and it hasn’t been photographed yet. I did do up a sock blend — 3 batts, 465 yards, about 15 wpi chain-plied, this is Iris, which is sold out again already, and clearly needs to be repeated when I get my lazy blogging butt into the studio shortly:

I like this yarn. In fact, let’s see it again:

Yeah, I like that one.

Oh, I did manage to get my yarn off for the Yarn Thing swap; by way of documentation, before I split it into its requisite 25 skeins, here it is on a kitchen scale set to measure in grams:

So, ignoring the little bit of waste and loss from splitting it into so many skeins, every skein is about a gram, and 20 yards. I’d wanted to make every skein for the swap from a single ounce of silk, and have it be a plied yarn. It looked a little silly, I have to admit, stuck into individual tiny plastic bags so I could slap a label on it because the skeins were just soooo small.

There’s something else I was going to mention… Ah yes! Here’s a swatch for my Indian Summer handpaint colourway, on some handspun wool/silk/mohair single. Expect to see the pattern for this scarf shortly; I want to think about it a bit and make a functional scarf, as really this is only a swatch.

Well, phooey! There’s not really all that much to show for a few busy weeks, but I’ll still pat myself on the back for spring cleaning. Which reminds me to let you all know I’ll be throwing items from the “I’m not going to do anything with this, am I?” pile up on eBay sometime later this week; presently there are a few yarns listed, like several boucles I just know I’m not going to do anything with, ever. There’ll be more… lots more.

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And the last of the fresh batts for the week, plus a few answered questions.

First, new batts have hit the eBay Store And some murky colours are even included this time.

Oh, and if you head on over there to buy something, let me know you arrived via my blog and you’ll get free shipping plus a little extra surprise.

On the subject of colour, June asked a little while ago:

You talk sometimes about colors you don’t like, but you rarely mention the colors you prefer. I glanced at your store and saw nearly all bright colors (and dare I say – pastels?), but the CR yarn you show above is quite dark and broody. Will the real AF please stand? 😀

Mmmmm, so I’m busted! Well, I guess I’ve had enough coffee today to try standing.

Here’s the deal: there are colours I like, and appreciate in the abstract, and sometimes these even include really really bright colours. There are combinations that I like, as well, and will use repeatedly; things that I reflexively gravitate towards, and things that I like for specific purposes but not others. And there is the list of colours, and combinations of colours, that I’ll wear. That’s a much, much shorter list. Lastly, there is a list of colours I have historically refused to use, wear, or anything, and which have specifically turned me off; this is the shortest list of all.

Part of my colour sense comes from Chinchero; specific weaving patterns are done in specific sorts of colour combinations traditionally, and everyone accepts that variations on these are less traditional. If something’s going to be a real Loraypu pattern, for instance, and it’s going to have a central different-colour stripe, then the outer two colours should be white and red; the inner two can be yellow and purple, or orange and green. If it’s only two colours, then you can shake it up more; and yes, you can do different things, but it’s not traditional, and there could be… implications. And it’s a bad idea to use contrasting colours that have similar values in those patterns, regardless of what colours they are. Strong contrast in terms of everything but texture — very important.

For a small ch’oro pattern, you can use bright aniline pink and grass green; but you really shouldn’t use that combination for things other than a small ch’oro pattern. Yes, they do in some other places, but that’s their problem and it’s certainly not something that my roots would really agree with, and it’s radical. A pink and green Loraypu is right out.

This list goes on and on and on, and very much defines my senses of what’s really “right” in certain contexts where colour contrasts happens. Although my sense of these things is shaped very much by Chinchero, that’s far from the only influence. Having a cultural colour sense from someplace that wasn’t the US made my US social life a challenge when it came to clothes, particularly when we’re talking the middle school years, which of course are a challenge for anybody. Prior to that, my big colour problem was one that set in and became really, really strongly entrenched for other reasons. You see, I’m a girl.

Yes, I know, that’s obvious. But I was a total tomboy. People in the US would do crazy things like give me pink stuff, and dresses that were pink, and dolls, and all sorts of things, and so in short order I learned about the “pink is for girls” thing and grew to detest all things pink. Which was not helped, of course, by the fact that my little sister loved pink. My US girlhood at times felt like a constant struggle against the injustice of being given a totally non-functional pink hammer when I wanted to pound nails in something. Perhaps if the 1970s and 1980s had featured any pink things which weren’t crap, and my little sister hadn’t liked pink, and everything… but such was not to be the case. I used to fly into a rage at the suggestion that I’d look good in pink.

Eventually, I came to terms with fuchsia and and really super-saturated dark pinks. But hot pink, petal pink, no way. No pink. Pink was evil. Everybody in Peru thought my pink aversion was very funny, as nobody there had any such issue; but they did notice that gringos in general didn’t tend to go for things that were pink in most cases.

I still viscerally react to pink in a negative way. I only started a campaign to make myself open my mind to pink in early 2006.

So, what do I wear? Well, honestly, I wear jeans all the time, except for when I’m wearing cutoffs or jean shorts. Perhaps 5-10 times a year I’ll wear not-jeans. Jeans, you see, have the right pocket configuration for the stuff I wish to carry. Not-jeans often lack pockets altogether, and therefore, might as well be a pink frilly tutu, even if they’re not. So yeah, I wear jeans. And t-shirts. Preferably dark colours for the t-shirts, but I’ll wear bright green, because green is my favourite colour. Last year, I bought a sky blue top, and wore it numerous times over the summer. But for the most part, what I can be found wearing is jeans, with a top that’s short-sleeved or 3/4 sleeved (because my arms are shorter than off-the-rack clothes that fit my bust and shoulders), and is either black, grey, navy blue, burgundy, brown, or deep forest green; occasionally, white, lighter blue, or fuchsia.

Therefore, if I’m going to make myself a wearable item, I tend to try to fit it in the core colour range of things I know I wear with comfort.

But in the abstract, in the sense of “This isn’t a thing that I’m going to wear,” I love bright colours, and surprising contrasts and vaguely disturbing secondary and tertiary colours. I like complex colours that involve multiple other colours that you don’t expect; I love to carefully darken a blue with pink, or warm up a brown with some orange, then throw in a frostier purple or lavender. With colour blends, when I am shooting for specific colours, I know what to do with the palette I’ve got to get the results I want, and sometimes, I like to not quite blend them fully, for the… shock value, or something, of being clear about the colour components.

Well… I think that’s about all I’ve got for now.

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A Few Thoughts on Woolen and Worsted

Do You Prefer To Spin Woolen or Worsted?

Totally depends. Some things I simply must have be worsted, and others I want woolen. For the most part though, it’s sort of a spectrum depending on what I think the yarn will be for, and which technique I use with what prep is decided by what I think the use will be.

A few generalities…

Socks: Woolen prep, worsted technique, or worsted prep with woolen technique. I want a little bit of bounce and give that I don’t usually get from a pure worsted.

Weaving: worsted. I don’t care about bounce or stretch or fluffiness; in fact I don’t want those things.

Sweaters: Woolen prep, woolen technique, or worsted prep and woolen technique. I probably want a bit of memory and bounce, but the exact amount doesn’t matter. Since it’ll be a lot of fabric, odds are I also want a fatter yarn.

Lace: almost always worsted technique, but prep can vary. I consider the fiber combination when thinking about how much it’ll stretch in blocking. I want it to stretch, but not stretch forever. My favourite lace yarns are usually just slightly lower-twist than weaving yarn, and sometimes less exacting about perfect smoothness.

From commercial top: depends on the fiber, and if I want fuzz or smooth. Either result can be achieved from commercial top.

How Do You Like To Mix and Match Techniques With Prep

1. Commercial top spun with woolen technique:

Spin from the fold with long draw or supported long draw. When I spin this way, I move as fast as I can, keep the wheel going really fast, and stay as hands-off as possible. The goal is to, regardless of prep, draft the fibers against the twist, with twist in the drafting zone, correcting slubs not by adding more fiber from the undrafted mass, but by pulling harder on the existing yarn. What I try to allow for is the maximum amount of air in the fibers as they’re being spun, without me squeezing any out. This produces a much loftier thick yarn than the predrafting methods in my experience, and would be worsted prep, woolen technique.

In some cases, with some fibers or variants on commercial top, this requires some double drafting, where an initial long draw of 18-20″ leaves slubs that must then be resolved directly with either another draw out to 30-36″ inches, evening the slubs, or by going back over that length and correcting the slubs from the spun points at either side. If I have to really get into the slub and manhandle it, a lot of the woolen-ness is lost, and I deem the prep sub-optimal for spinning with woolen technique.

2. Carded Preparations Spun With Worsted Technique:

Taking carded roving or sliver, drum-carded batts, or rolags produced with handcards, and spinning short draw (not more than about 6 inches on a draw), keeping twist out of the drafting zone by making sure it stays downstream of my forward hand. I then slide my forward hand tightly along the drafted portion of the fiber, smoothing the fibers and pushing air out, while allowing twist in slowly.

For me, whether or not there’s twist in the drafting zone and whether or not you compress the yarn as you let the twist in and/or before you wind on, define the most important distinction between worsted and woolen techniques.

Twist in the drafting zone, no compressing of the yarn = woolen technique

No twist in the drafting zone, smoothing the yarn as you go = worsted technique.

A note: If I’ve got a true combed top, I’m going to spin it true worsted. A real top combed by hand is labor-intensive and I do it for specific results.

Thanks to Mr. Jimbobspins for asking the questions about this on the Knitty forums.

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Fiber Geek Questionnaire, belatedly

This questionnaire comes from Fiber Femmes, a fiber arts webzine which consistently has great content (if I say so myself, as author of one article in a recent issue).

1. Do you raise fiber, animals or plant, or are a fiber user only? If you raise animals/plants…what do you raise?

I don’t raise fiber animals or crops. Livestock is a huge commitment and I have my hands plenty full as it is!

2. What’s your favorite fiber & why? Which fiber do you like the least & why?

There’s no way I could pick one single favourite fiber! They all have different strengths and weaknesses and allures, and I’m prone to the wiles of one or another in cycles. And I could ask, favourite in what sense? To spin? To use as yarn? To wear? For utility purposes?

I absolutely love to spin blends of fine wool and tussah silk, which I produce myself, and I love the resulting yarns as well, which can be fine and strong, big and lofty, and anything in between. From fall through spring, I love to wear things made from those blends as well. But for all-around miscellaneous usefulness, I would have to rate cotton very highly. Cotton is a tremendous workhorse fiber, and most of my clothes are storebought, mass-produced cotton (jeans, t-shirts, that sort of thing). I sew almost exclusively with cotton, the exception being when I sew with silk. I use cotton towels, dishcloths, and rags; cotton pervades my life, even though I almost never spin it. In fact, I really don’t like to spin cotton — cotton and I are not at peace with each other in that respect. Whereas protein fibers, I feel, want to be made into yarn, it always feels to me like cotton does not, and it fights me every step of the way, succumbing to yarn form only when tricked into it.

If I were going to pick a single least-favourite fiber, I’d have to go with corn-derived plastic fiber, ingeo. Unpleasant to spin, impossible to dye, with a melting point that suggests structural failure is possible with as little heat as could be generated by being left on the patio on a hot summer day, ingeo is totally inexplicable to me. I just don’t get it.

Seriously, what is the point of this fiber? “Oh look,” the hype about it says, “A fiber from renewable sources!” Well, huzzah — now with extensive industrial technology we’re able to create a fiber from renewable sources, finally! Thank heaven! What would we ever have done without a fiber that grows back? What, do you think cotton or linen grows in fields every year? Or fleece-bearing animals regrow their wooly coverings? If you want a sustainable product, what’s wrong with a natural one? What are we trying to accomplish here with ingeo? A more expensive, less functional, and nastier-feeling variant of acrylic yarns which is somehow superior simply because it’s corn-based? Where’s the value in that? Give me a nice regenerated cellulosic if we’re talking industrially-produced man-made fibers, and leave the oddball plastics to non-textile applications.

3. What’s your worst habit relating to your fiber?

Hrmmm. Most likely it would be not finishing projects I’ve started, or as Pippi puts it, lack of project monogamy.

4. In what ways does your fiber habit make you a better person?

Habit? It’s not a habit, it’s a lifestyle. To be honest, I don’t really know; I’ve been involved with fiber all my life and although I realized in my teens that not everybody else was, it still never occurred to me until maybe 2 or 3 years ago that I might not have been. Other people not engaged in fiber pursuits? Okay, I can see that; me? Never occurred to me that such a thing was really possible. Might as well ask me how I’m a better person for being able to read, make change, tie my shoes, speak, or use silverware. I’m aware that there are people who can’t do some of those things (and I even know some), but I can’t really picture being one.

5. How would your life be different if you had to give up fiber?

Well, for one thing, I’d have to go back to working for The Man, and I don’t think that would make anybody in my life happy; although I did reasonably well with a computer career for a while, there came a point when I simply was no longer content to be “a resource” stuck at a point beyond which it was clear I’d never advance, performing mindless and repetitive tasks for people who had no idea what they actually were, didn’t care, and leaving absolutely nothing tangible done for years of work.

Fiber work is tactile, real, and provides eternal growth opportunity and challenge; and being my own boss, I make the calls, instead of resenting that they’re being made by middle managers who don’t even understand what’s involved in doing the work, don’t understand the product, and value nothing but their own progression through a world of intangibles and doublespeak.

If I had to give up fiber, and go back to that lifestyle, I think consequences would be drastic for my sanity, and as a result, for my family. There are many reasons why I quit my computer career, but simply put, it was destroying my life to work constantly at absolutely nothing. I had to face facts and recognize that my entire life has been largely about fiber, and trying to make it not be so was madness.

6. What tools, yarns, books or gadgets can’t you live without?

Tough question, that I could take in two polar opposite ways. In the most literal interpretation with respect to fiber, the answer is a good knife or a multi-tool, and a means of starting fires, because using those and assuming I can find some wood or bone and some fiber, I can build a textile enterprise. I can make the tools, get the job done, and teach others to do the same; I’m a human textile mill thanks to heredity and environment. Are there tools I would miss, and that I could not recreate? Absolutely — but the lack of those tools would not stop me from practicing the fiber arts.

I didn’t use a book to learn a textile or fiber thing until I was in my 20s. Early in my life, I was trained to learn textile skills from other people very, very quickly, in a largely illiterate environment where, as it happens, the textiles themselves were tools for communication, record-keeping, and so forth. Even now for most things, I’d rather look at the textile object as a reference, than a written thing about it — even for things which eventually, I did learn to do from books. Mostly though, I spent my childhood and young adulthood never passing up an opportunity to learn a textile skill directly from a human. That said, I’m adding “make a list of my favourite textile reference books” to my to-do list, because I do have a long list and there are absolutely books and publications I’d miss very much.

As far as yarn goes, I think it would drive me absolutely nuts not to be able to spin my own yarn, and to live a life where I truly had no option but to seek out mass-produced yarn and choose from pre-fabricated alternatives that don’t really do exactly what I want. I suppose I could live with only the products of mills to sustain me, but it would be like living on fast food, TV dinners, and takeout.

7. What was your first fiber project?

The first thing I remember was learning simple braids (3 strands, 4 strands, and 5-stranded flat like shoelaces) when I was 2 and 3 years old, playing around in the weaving studio my father had then. I don’t remember learning to do the 3-strand braid, but I do remember him teaching me 4 and 5 strands. At 3, I remember getting my first one of those potholder looms with the elastic loops, and my mother teaching me to use it, and at 3 and 4 I remember both of my parents teaching me to do inkle loom weaving. My first real finished object was a Peruvian jakima at age 5.

8. Do you have any fiber mentors? Who are they and why?

I guess the only ones still living and still really actively mentoring me are my mother, and Nilda Callañaupa. Although you could probably count “the entire town of Chinchero, Peru,” really. Why are they active mentors for me? Well… because they’ll hold me to things, judge me, critique me, and because they already know what I ought to be doing that I’m not, and they’ll argue with me about it all, and what’s more, like me, they know what would be said by the fiber mentors in my life who’ve passed on.

There’s also quite a list of folks who’ve known my parents since I was a baby, who worked with both of them or with my father, who have done (and still do) a lot to keep me on track and encourage me to go further. There are so many of these fine folks it’s hard to make a list.

9. Are you a member of any guilds? If so, which one(s)?

My membership’s lapsed since I moved, but I plan to reactivate it; Black Sheep Guild in California, who all but came and got me and wouldn’t let me go, a few years ago, and who’ve uniformly been incredibly supportive.

There’s a problem with a lot of guilds, in that many of them meet at times when someone with a day job can’t go; I think this causes a generation gap and cultural gap between certain fiber scenes, in fact.

I’ve often been hesitant to go become involved with guilds as well, because at one point early in adulthood I grew tired of hearing people ask me “Oh are you Ed’s daughter?” and I felt like a hanger-on or something. Since my father died (three years ago this week), it’s been tough in some respects because, well, I miss my dad; and so do a lot of people in the fiber world, and sometimes it’s just sad to end up talking about him. For the first couple of years, I mostly couldn’t handle the emotional load.

10. What’s the most exciting fiber project you’ve undertaken?

Every single one, at the start of it. None of them, by the middle. By the end? Usually about one a year.

I know, that’s facile — but it’s true. Looking back, I’d say that my most technically exciting projects have been the bag I wove when I was 13, learning Palma y Ramos in Pitumarca, work on documenting intersecting warp hair ties in Accha Alta, and chullu knitting. The largest project is Chad’s poncho, which is likely to take me all summer this year, if I’m diligent and lucky; otherwise it’ll be another year.

The most emotionally charged project is one I’ve undertaken, but not done, yet. For many years, my father spindle-spun tussah silk, with the intent that it would be woven by Sara and then made into a tailored sportcoat for him. But he died before he was done, and the course his illness took left him unable to finish many things. My mother gathered up all the silk he’d spun, some plied, some unplied, none washed and set, none measured, and sent it to me. I’ve got to finish it and get it to Sara. My progress so far has been to look at it several times, and move it with me to 2 new homes.

And the single most extensive, biggest, complex, and consuming fiber project I’ve ever taken on is without a doubt Franquemont Fibers. I expect it’ll take my entire life and never be done.

11. How many people have you mentored? In which fiber arts?

I guess it depends what’s mentoring. I’ve taught lots of people; really mentoring? I’d say 2 or 3 in “Abby’s Holistic Yarn Geeking,” and 3 or 4 in spinning.

12. Do you consider fiber crafts to be functional or artistic?

Yes, I absolutely do.

Oh, you wanted me to pick one over the other? I can’t; part of the thing that really speaks to me about textiles is that when well-executed, they are the ultimate marriage of form and function, one so brilliantly done that both elements can become completely invisible, utterly ubiquitous, and essential to our lives in ways most of us have never even really considered.

13. What, mainly, do you make? Do you keep, or give away, most of your projects?

I make all sorts of things. Anything that strikes my fancy, and anything I want or need. Ultimately, I give away far more than I keep. I almost never make anything that isn’t intended to be used.

14. Are fiber crafts an avocation or vocation for you?

Both, without a doubt — and a lifestyle and an identity.

15. How many people are you committed to being a mentor for in 2007?

I’ve no concrete mentoring commitments for this year at this time; I’m planning on putting really serious efforts into myself and my business this year, working up to some real teaching plans.

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Yarn Measurement

Renee asks:

You mentioned that you usually keep track of the length of fiber spun. I was wondering how you calculate that?

I usually keep a notebook handy and log my spinning in various ways, and I measure and write down several things about the yarn, then tag the yarn with what I guess you could call its associated metadata.

I like to keep track of how long it takes to spin and ply the yarn to some general degree, though sometimes it’ll be no more detail than “an evening watching TV.” If there’s anything particularly unusual about the fiber or the technique, I also jot that down. I also generally try to keep track of what the fiber was in case I want or need more, and so I can tell people if they ask. So my little notebook next to my spinning will have things in it like:

7 Feb 2007

Chasing Rainbows Merino/Tencel – African Savannah 2 oz

Split space-dyed top down center, 1st half /1 bobbin, 2nd half / next bobbin

3.5 hrs

8 Feb 2007

remaining CR merino/tencel on bobbin 2, 1.5 hrs

plied same, 2 hrs

Once the yarn is done, I take the bobbin and go skein the yarn, using my trusty counting skeiner, a Fricke freestanding floor skeiner with inbuilt counter (Fricke’s Winding Items). Mine is several years old now, and it’s been through a lot with me. The first thousand miles or so of yarn we skeined loosened the base a little and so now it has attractive Gorilla Glue detailing there. One arm of the skeiner was broken during the cross-country move last year, and reglued and secured further with wire. And the original counter gave up the ghost last fall, and had to be replaced! Now you might be thinking, “Wow, what a lemon,” but that couldn’t be further from the truth. You have to think about just how much yarn I skein. There are many days where I skein several miles of yarn. The thing has taken quite a beating, and it keeps going.

Anyway, thanks to the magic of the counter, I know how many yards there are immediately. In some cases, I choose to stop at a certain point and tie off the skein, removing it — if I’m putting things up in 100-yard or 200-yard skeins for a specific reason, like for sale, for instance. In other cases, I just keep going until the whole bobbin is empty. Then I add in the yardage — usually rounding down to the next 5, so if there are 178 yards, I call it 175 — in my little notebook, and take the skein(s) to be washed.

Once they’re completely dry, I weigh them in grams and ounces, and add that to the notebook as well. Usually, I calculate the yards per pound (ypp) at this point as well. And supposing I’m not being lazy, this is when I measure wpi, by wrapping the yarn around a ruler.

When all is said and done, I have the following metadata available to me about the yarn:

  • 660 yards / 600 meters
  • 2 ounces / 56 grams
  • 38 wpi
  • 5280 ypp
  • Spinning Time: 7 hrs
  • Material: Merino/Tencel handpainted top from Chasing Rainbows, African Savannah

That lets me describe the yarn in post like this one, and keep a record of it with the post as well, including photos. If it’s yarn that I plan to sell, I can determine my cost to produce it and establish pricing, and I retain the ability to reproduce the yarn at a later date without having to keep the yarn itself to crib from. What’s more, this lets me get a sense of how long it takes me in general to produce certain kinds of things, and discuss the minutiae with other people who can’t see or handle the yarn.

I don’t always measure angle of twist or twists per inch, but sometimes I do; usually if I have a picture it’s apparent to me what the twist is like in the yarn. Similarly, sometimes I write down minutiae about prep and spinning technique, but sometimes it’s obvious to me and I don’t.

What I should do is actually produce sample cards with samples of the yarn and all this information on them! That would be truly principled and orderly… but instead, mostly I use digital photos, my photo gallery, and my blog, to track things.

If you don’t have a counting skeiner, a simple, quick-and-dirty way to figure your yardage is to skein the yarn, wash it and dry it, and then stretch the skein out next to a yardstick and see about how long it is. This won’t be perfectly accurate, but you’ll be close! Suppose it’s 24 inches long; one loop of that skein is therefore 48 inches of yarn. Now, count the loops (I like to count ’em in pairs to make it go faster, or in threes). If you have (for example) 37 loops, then 37 x 48 = 1776 inches, and 1776 inches divided by 36 inches in a yard comes to 49.3 yards. I would round that down to 45 yards; I would always rather have underestimated the yardage I’ve got than overestimated it! I would rather be surprised by leftovers than a shortage.

I always recommend weighing your yarn after finishing, and once it’s well dry; personally, on a long skein of yarn, I always lose a couple of grams of weight in the wash, that are actually oils from my fingers when I spin, little bits of dirt, and so forth. Similarly, you want to measure your wpi after finishing, as yarn will generally change a bit in the wash. In fact, ideally I would reskein my yarn after washing it, and sometimes I do — definitely if I’m going to enter it in a competition, in which case I skein it meticulously for that purpose.

I think that’s about it for what I usually track about a given yarn, and how. To sum up, I have a little spiral-bound notebook in which I record the key things, and then I transfer that to my photo gallery notes and/or my blog when I write up the yarn, as well as to a tag on the skein (even if I don’t write up the yarn and take pictures). Why do I do all of this? Because it’s a matter of seconds here and there while doing the work, but long and annoying steps to have to take later if I don’t track it when I have the chance to do it easily! It saves me from having a skein of random yarn in my stash that I’d like to do something with, but I’ve got no clue how many yards there were, or where I got the fiber if I want to do more, and that sort of thing.

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Updates on Handspun Yarn Pricing Post

I’ve received some terrific comments, in various forms, on my post dealing with the pricing of handspun yarn. I’ve incorporated feedback from these into a revision, now online — just follow the link! But I’m going to take a moment to reply to a few of the comments here.

…you have allowed no time for acquiring the fibres and any preparation before spinning. The costs of production space etc. What is more you have allowed no time for the marketing and distribution time or costs. This includes any advertising, time travelling to outlets, and all the time costs spent on accounting for your business. Unsold stock has a high rent cost. In my experience this is equal to a third of the final price, or 50% more than the amount you have calculated.

This is absolutely true. The example isn’t intended to help someone figure out how to handle all of the retail aspects as well as all the supply chain aspects, but rather simply to give people a starting point for figuring out what their baseline cost is to produce a given handspun yarn, and urge people to consider that it’s unwise to price their wares below their cost, which is something that can plainly be seen happening in many contexts. I find that when a lot of the folks on spinning mailing lists are asking for advice about how to price their yarn, it’s something that they have never considered at all, and where someone else may be asking them to consider selling their goods, without being aware of how labor-intensive handspun yarns can be.

I have revised the original article to explain this more clearly.

I am guessing that if you are charging 5 dollars for a 100 yard skein.. you are talking about singles. I am wondering how you would charge for plied yarn? Takes so much longer.. but does the average yarn consumer recognize that? Or are they just looking at the number of yards?

First, I’m not charging $5 for a 100-yard skein; “about $5” is my baseline cost to produce that skein in the originally-shown scenario (now updated, and featuring a second scenario as well). Baseline cost to produce it could be viewed as the rock-bottom wholesale cost, where if I sell the yarn for less than that, I’m selling it at a loss. About $5 is break-even for production alone; costs of doing business raise that price when we’re talking about bringing it to market. $5 is too cheap for a 100-yard skein produced by a handspinner of even limited skill, in my opinion.

Second, does the average yarn buyer understand the time and skill that goes into handspun yarn production? Probably not, and this is a problem. I firmly believe that when producers of textile goods persist in underpricing them, they allow people to go uninformed about the real value of those goods. I could buy a chair from Target for $19.99, or I could buy one from a master furniture maker for $750. What’s the difference? Both are chairs, right? Should the master furniture maker price her chair at $19.99 because Target can sell chairs for that? Absolutely not; and when someone who’s never seen a chair priced higher than $19.99 looks at the $750 price tag, one of the questions that comes to mind is “Why is it so expensive?” It is then the job of the person selling the handcrafted chair to explain why.

I would never suggest that yarn buyers are only interested in the lowest cost yarns, never interested in true handcrafted quality, simply won’t pay what yarn is worth; but in some cases they may not yet be aware of what those things are worth. That’s okay; I say, don’t price to the lowest common denominator, and be willing to not make a sale if making that sale actually costs you money.

I have to agree with Ian – this is a good start, but for a professional there are many other costs involved. I have a website which involves a lot of maintenance and constant updates, I regularly pay for advertising, I have boxes to pack and ship, I spend time procuring material, I do daily dye pots, and there is constant accounting. I put in well over a 40 hour week – often working 7 days a week to keep my website fresh. I spend a lot of time corresponding with my customers. I do very labor intensive yarns that require a lot of stop and go spinnning. I have energy costs for doing dye pots and spinning out and drying fibers. $10 per hour is barely above minimum wage. I could not live on $5/100yards of yarn produced.

And these are very important things to consider when you’re getting into a business selling your handspun yarn — there are many more costs associated with doing so than simply producing the yarn. Here’s an excerpt from an older post, talking about the hours I try to keep; as you can see, production is actually a small piece of the pie:

For January, leaving aside sick days, I’m figuring on something like this for a division of work:

* Production: 12-24 hours
* Operations: 10-12 hours
* Development: 12-20 hours

Total work hours in a typical week: 32 – 56.

Production is things like dyeing silk, or producing yarn and fiber for sale.

Operations is stuff like packing, shipping, inventory, accounting, routine correspondence.

Development is writing, patterns, product testing, market research, and some correspondence.

Both production and development have strong risks of slopping over into my personal life; in some cases this is acceptable and in other cases, it’s not — but that’s a whole new range of stuff to talk about, best left for another day. For now, suffice it to say I’m figuring a slack week is 30-some-odd hours of work, a busy week maybe as much as 60; with average weeks somewhere in the “around 40 work hours” range. The big tricky issue for me, really, is how to limit time and be focused; I have a tendency to just work nonstop, whatever I’m doing, and that’s what needs controlling most in my life.

I suppose that in my earlier article, I shied away from coming right out and saying this, so here goes:

I believe it’s unethical to pay less than a living wage for handwork. I believe that doing so for textile goods has a long and established history which people simply accept to a much greater degree than they do for other, non-textile goods. And I believe that in large part, this is possible because so many people will sell their textile goods at a loss. It’s my opinion that doing so is not only not a good business practice, but beyond that, actually harmful. Why? Because if you do it, you’re making products available for less than it costs to produce them, contributing to the problem mentioned above where people don’t know the value of a textile good, driving down prices, negatively impacting the market, and exploiting yourself. And that’s just for starters! So really think about your pricing and the market and your impact on it when you get to selling your handmade textile goods, and don’t just let a market of buyers for mass-produced goods talk you into treating yourself like a stereotypical “sweat shop” garment worker.

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A Couple of Questions Answered

I’ve got two questions to answer today, both from Melanie at Pink Lemon Twist. Let me take a moment also to say that Melanie does some beautiful work, and I’m particularly a fan of her lace designs. Besides, she and I share the delight of having taken Darth Vader places on Halloween; surely this means something, though I’m not sure what.

Anyway, Melanie’s done some wonderful lace patterns that I like quite a bit, and I’m very much an admirer of her stuff; and her Hanami shawl, one which I’ve read about on her blog as she worked on it, is the first pattern I’ve purchased in at least a year.

Question the first: have I ever considered getting a custom wheel built for me?

Indeed I have! I’ve dithered endlessly on the subject as well. Some years ago, I told my father that I had decided to start spinning on a wheel and see if I liked it (as opposed to only using spindles, and viewing wheels as “cheating,” which I did when I was a kid).

“Hrmmm,” he said. “Well, if you’re going to do that, you should talk to my friend Alden Amos and have him build you something.” I looked around briefly, discovered that Mr. Amos’ wheels were not cheap and came with a wait measured in years and would take up a lot of space in the very very small California tract house where we lived at the time, and like any rotten kid, totally ignored my father’s advice. Then I dithered and dithered even further about whether or not I, in fact, wanted to get a spinning wheel at all.

While I was dithering, my better half gave me an Ashford Kiwi for Christmas. Within two weeks, it was clear to me that I did, in fact, want to be spinning on a wheel, and within three weeks it was clear to everyone that the Kiwi was not enough wheel to keep up with me, and I was going to need more wheel power. The net result of that was that I performed exhaustive research into what wheels I could get now, at whatever price, that would fit my lifestyle and have the broadest range of capabilities, and by the first week in February I’d bought a Majacraft Suzie Pro.

That Suzie has stood me in very, very good stead for several years now, and has been extended in just about every imaginable way. Indeed, the wheel has without exaggeration spun enough yarn for me to string from here to the Majacraft factory in New Zealand and back… loosely. In 3-ply at least. The long way to New Zealand. There’s nothing I haven’t spun on that wheel, either. It’s a very, very versatile workhorse of a wheel.

I’ve also acquired a number of other wheels, numerous of them quite exceptional, such as my Journey Wheel. I’ve spun on practically every wheel I run across at a shop, show, event, you name it. I’ve read up on wheel history and obscure wheel designs and theorized about what I wanted and how it could be done. I’ve discussed wheel mechanics and my wants and needs with anybody and everybody with whom I ever discuss the subject of wheels. I’ve made up totally fictional wheels with capabilities that border on the absurd.

But even so, no matter what, every wheel has its limitations. When I get to spinning fine and high-twist, alas, none of my flyer wheels ever seem to be quite fast enough, quiet enough, and so forth. Plying super-fine high twist yarns, I am forever yearning for my parents’ great wheel, except I want it to use bobbins and work while I’m sitting on my butt, too, of course. And my Roberta is too noisy at high speeds. And for spinning fine, it’s bobbin lead single drive. Oh, the list just goes on and on.

So finally I came to a point where I had to say to myself, “Self, you really do need to just have someone build you something.” I thought a lot about who. There are some fabulous custom wheels out there and some fabulous wheelbuilders… and finally it dawned on me that, you know, if I had taken my father’s advice years ago, and just gone and talked to Alden Amos, instead of saying “Well it’s expensive, and there’s a long wait…” I’d have an Alden Amos wheel by now. What’s more, talking to lots of people about it over the years, one of the things I’ve heard about him is that he’s told people “That’s not what you want. This is what you want.” Upon reflection, I realized that this is exactly what I need: someone to whom I can lay out all my absurd wants, who’s able to say “You may think this is what you want, but here’s what you really need,” and then build it.

So, presently, I’m going through Alden and Stephenie’s wheel and spinning questionnaires, evaluating my entire spinning lifestyle, and asking them to Solve My Problem(tm). No more dithering; I could dither about this forever.

Another thing I have to confess about the custom wheel situation: the same deeply ingrained, Chinchero-bred arrogance that caused me to say “I don’t need anything but a stick to do high-quality spinning, forget all this fancy equipment,” causes me to have a knee-jerk tendency to say “I really don’t require super-high-end equipment in order to do really good work!” Well, maybe I don’t; but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t use it and I wouldn’t like it and there’s no reason whatsoever for me to want it.

So, anyway, here I am in the throes of the custom wheel question!

Second question: What do you spin when you just spin?

I’m not a big fan of knits using bulky yarns either, but I was wondering, what weight yarn do you find yourself using the most? I realize that you (like most of us) probably have a range, but is there a default weight you spin to when you are just spinning for fun? –Melanie

This actually falls right in with the questionnaires about my spinning that I’m working on for the custom wheel. To some extent it depends on the specific fiber; but the bottom line is that I spin fine when I just spin for fun. “Fine” in this case means a laceweight 2-ply, fingering to sock weight 3-ply, depending on the fiber and the prep. All of those fine yarns a couple of entries back, ranging from 40 wpi to 52 wpi in 2-ply, were comfort spinning (though on the thin side).

But I have moods… and I also really really try to make myself shake things up a bit now and again. Last fall, I had a 2-week boucle binge, which combined very fine silk singles for binders, with a thick-and-thin wool/silk single, where the thin parts were about 15 wpi and the fat parts were about 8.

But, okay, let’s force me to nail this down here. As evidenced by what knitting needles I have the most of, I think I mostly seem to randomly churn out 2-ply and 3-ply yarns that would get knit up on size 3 needles. And I actually think part of this is equipment related; if I had a faster wheel I’d probably go finer. On a spindle, I reflexively tend to yarn for Peruvian weaving, at 50-60 wpi in 2-ply.

The absolute bar none largest needle project I have going right now is for size 6 needles. The green sweater I think’ll be size 7 needles:

That’s thicker than I usually spin just to spin. So, I dunno, I guess 15-30 wpi in 2-ply is probably my default range on a wheel. And that’s actually one of the reasons I really wanted the sock machine, was to eat all the smallish quantities of rather random yarn in not-fast-project grists.

I generally don’t sell anything finer than sock yarn; it spends too long sitting around waiting for a lace knitter to want it, a lot of weavers don’t spin and have misconceptions about handspun yarn and weaving, thread crochet folks don’t think of using handspun yarn mostly, and none of it’s cheap. I’d love to sell handspun lace yarns, but it wouldn’t be cheap to do so, certainly not compared to the commercial options out there.

But yeah, I guess I like laceweight yarn and sock yarn as a default. I think, too, that I feel like yarns of that ilk have strong “turn into something magically” potential when marinating in the stash.

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Can You Offer Any Advice About Spinning Thicker Yarn?

First of all, spinning thick and consistent is quite difficult to do! If you want thick, consistent, and lofty, this is potentially one of the most technically challenging yarns to produce reliably as a single-ply yarn. If you take millspun commercial yarns which appear to be this, and deconstruct them carefully, you can often discover that they are in fact plied yarns, or in some cases, mildly felted pencil roving that hasn’t exactly been drafted and spun.

Paula Simmons’ book “Spinning for Softness and Speed” goes into a lot of detail about light, lofty yarns. I highly recommend it for anybody interested in spinning that sort of yarn. I understand you can order it directly from her here:

The easiest way to get a thick and consistent single ply yarn is to predraft to roughly the thickness that you want, and then simply add twist. However, this generally produces a fairly dense yarn without a ton of loft, and is rather slow going. The “right way,” so to speak, is to master woolen prep, make rolags with hand cards, and spin one-handed long draw… and this will still have some variability in thickness! There are many things in between these two ends of the spectrum. From commercial top, you can get a pretty good lofty single by spinning from the fold, quickly (as in drafting quickly and using a light takeup on your wheel and practically flinging the yarn at the orifice).

The most reliable way to get a consistent and predictable bulky yarn is to spin singles which are consistent, and ply them, using a fiber that tends to want to bulk up (Falkland wool comes to mind, and merino doesn’t do too badly and is easier to find). In general, not considering the question of finishing or washing your yarn and how the fiber behaves, a 2-ply isn’t quite 2x as thick as a single, and a 3-ply is a little more than 3x as thick — yep, the 3-ply structure actually behaves differently from the 2-ply structure, and adds more bulk. Were you to spin the fattest singles you can, and then ply them into a true 3-ply yarn (not navajo plied), you would see very surprising bulk from them, as well as wear properties superior to what you would get from a singles yarn.

You can also do a cabled yarn; the easiest way to describe that is to say that you spin singles, and ply 2 together; then you ply 2 of those plied yarns together again, in the direction in which you originally spun the yarn. You have a plied yarn within a plied yarn! Cabled yarns are very stable and even, almost no matter what you started out with; a thick-and-thin slubby single, plied 2-ply and then plied again cable, will be much more consistent than you’d think.

One easy way to spin a cabled yarn would be to use the center-pull ball method (or similar ply-from-both-ends technique such as the Andean plying bracelet). Ply once, then wind another center-pull ball, and ply that in turn from both ends.

Lastly, when spinning a thick yarn especially, prep matters — even more than it does when you’re spinning fine. When you spin fine, you do a lot more drafting and you can correct for a lot of things in the course of that; and you have more twist in the yarn as well. There are just more places that’ll be forgiving of problems in prep — when you’re spinning a thick and lofty yarn, your prep has to be spot on, or you’ll find unevenness happens very quickly and there’s virtually nothing you can do to correct it once it’s in there (or at least, it’s quite challenging by comparison to fixing such problems in finer yarn).

Personally, I like to work at being able to spin practically anything imaginable; but for practical reasons, extremely thick and lofty singles are not always as good a choice as a plied yarn of a similar thickness, though of course, it depends on your application. As a matter of my own opinion, I am not a huge fan of extremely dense thick yarns; I don’t like the hand or the drape of fabrics made from such yarns (though they have their places to be sure).