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How Do You Usually Price Handspun Yarn?

The question of how to price handspun yarn is coming up again on the various spinning mailing lists, so I’m taking an opportunity to repost my standard thoughts on pricing methodologies here.

The question of pricing, and discussing it, is a challenging one in some respects. There are numerous philosophies, and there are people who want to talk about them and people who don’t. With handcrafted goods, professionals sometimes find themselves competing with hobbyists, who have other means of support and aren’t looking to earn a living from selling their wares, enabling them to charge lower prices. This sometimes means the bottom falls out of a certain market, removing a professional’s livelihood, and a hobbyist’s lack of sensitivity to this can make professionals less willing to discuss the subject publicly.

Most hobbyists, and some professionals who are just starting out, are not setting out callously and with evil intent to undercut people who are looking to make a living; but they don’t know how to price things yet, they don’t know what the market will bear, and they often undervalue their work… or sometimes, overvalue it, though this is less common and tends to be limited to specific, trendy products.

Professionals, too, sometimes find themselves unenthused about helping hobbyists bring products to market because of the question of quality. In some — though categorically not all — cases, hobbyist wares are not as well-made as professional wares, and some professionals worry that simply having them on the market as hand-produced goods may have an overall negative effect on public perception of how good those products are on the whole. With the fiber arts this can be a particular sticking point, because it may require a trained eye in order to detect the difference.

Still more professionals flatly feel that they’ve spent years working on coming up with ways to turn a profit doing what they do, and put lots of work into it, and that’s not information they’re going to give away just because someone thinks they might be interested in it.

So, when asking for advice on pricing handspun yarn or handwoven, handknit, hand-crocheted items, be aware that you may be jumping into heated debate, whatever your scenario, whatever your expertise level, and whatever your goals.

For me it is essential to have and use a firm model, and to track what I do. I am also philosophically opposed — very opposed — to underpricing handmade fiber goods, as I feel that contributes to an overall cultural devaluation of textiles. So, I urge anybody getting into the selling game to talk not only to folks selling yarn or fiber, but folks selling handmade goods of all varieties, like furniture, pottery, wrought iron, you name it. Although the market has the final say, suppliers of goods on the market set the starting point.

People new to selling their wares would be well advised to look closely at the specific market which they’re entering, and consider where they’ll fit in it and how they’ll affect it, as there is a strong likelihood that this will have a great impact on their relationships with their peers and colleagues.

Abby’s Pricing Theory

There are two different questions here for me: how I put it up if I’m going to sell it, and how I price it. My pricing is based on cost of materials, time to produce, and “operating overhead” so to speak. By and large this is a pricing methodology that I learned as a child, with my friends selling woven items to tourists in Peru. There’s another angle on it, which involves figuring out what the market is, what’s selling at what price, and producing to meet that demand, but that’s a separate question.

It’s my belief that people need to price to pay textile producers a living wage, end of story. If I determine the market won’t pay what I’d need to make on a given object to earn a living wage for producing it, I don’t sell it. In my opinion, no independent producer of goods can really afford to price himself or herself out of a living wage.

Purely hypothetical scenario:

First, I want to stress that these scenarios use fictional numbers, and are intended to help you think about your baseline cost for producing a yarn; this does not include your cost for selling that yarn. I don’t want to tell you how to price your yarn, give the exact dollar amounts that I use, or tell you how to run a business; but I do want to provide you with food for thought about the cost of production alone. These examples also do not include more complicated overhead costs such as the cost of space in which to produce the goods; these are simply starting point examples. Also not included in the model described here are: how to handle unexpected losses from theft or damage, insurance, bookkeeping time, consulting time, project management costs, development costs, market research, and many more things that are very important for a businessperson to think about.

What I’m trying to get at here is this: Don’t sell your handspun yarn for less than it costs you to produce it. Even if you don’t make a business of this in earnest, if you do make a habit of selling your goods for below cost, you’re likely to have a negative effect on the market for such goods on the whole.

Anyway, you can use this formula to determine your baseline cost and break-even point for production, regardless of what you’re producing. It doesn’t matter what the numbers are in the example; substitute your own, to determine your cost, then base your pricing on your cost.

Let’s say I have a fiber that costs $10 a pound. I have equipment that would cost $1000 to replace. I want to pay my spinner (me) $10 an hour. I can produce 400 yards of single-ply yarn from 6 ounces of fiber, in an average hour. I expect the lifespan of my equipment to be 4000 hours until service or replacement is required. In addition, it takes up to 10 minutes per skein of 100 yards to measure, wash, label, etc, so let’s factor that in, but leave it as a separate item in case someday down the road we’re employing a put-up person who doesn’t have to be a skilled spinner, who makes a different wage.

Round numbers (everything up to the nearest 10 cents)

  • Materials cost for a 100-yard/1.5 oz skein: $1
  • Labor cost for spinning: 15 minutes at $10/hr = $2.50
  • Labor cost for finish and put-up: 10 minutes at $10/hr = $1.80
  • Equipment cost: $0.10

My break-even is $5.40 a 100-yard skein, in this case.

Second Purely Fictional Scenario

In this case, my raw material costs $20 a pound and I can produce 200 yards of it in an hour, not including put-up and packaging. Skeining, measuring, washing, and labeling will be done by a different employee earning $8 an hour. Everything else stays the same.

  • Materials cost for a 100-yard/1.5 oz skein: $2
  • Labor cost for spinning: 30 minutes at $10/hour = $5.00
  • Labor cost for put-up: 10 minutes at $8/hour = $1.35
  • Equipment cost: $0.15

Break-even here is $8.50.

If I want to give away the labor, or the materials, I can adjust accordingly. The same goes for pricing a job where I don’t have to pay for the fiber, but I do require time, and will put wear and tear on my equipment.

Please note that this is the break-even point; the point at which I am not operating at a loss on simply producing the yarn. This is the point below which I’m actually paying money to sell the yarn, if I sell it at such a price. This is not my final sales price if I’m bringing the product to market, storing it, advertising it, shipping it, and so forth; this is the point below which, if someone else is going to absorb all those costs, I cannot afford to sell the product. It’s a rock bottom wholesale price.

I think I’m somewhat unusual in my pricing because I do include equipment maintenance or replacement cost, something I generally don’t see people do. But you’re out of business without the gear and it does take a beating if you do production work! I also think that generally, folks don’t view it as “I have to pay my spinner (me)” — but I was raised by often self-employed parents and have had it drilled into me to consider my time payable by the operation, whatever it is. 😉

As far as put-up: by default, I pull things off the bobbin and skein them with my counting skeiner, so I know how many yards there are. If something is for general sale, I will leave it in a skein; if it’s part of a special order or something where someone requests, I can put it up in center-pull balls (but I don’t do that in general). For my own storage purposes, I skein, wash, dry, then either store if I don’t have a likely immediate (in a couple of months) use in sight, or put it in balls if I do. Size of skeins: I have found that in general, 100-yard skeins, measured by yards, of varying weight, are more popular than by-weight skeins. Think about it: as a yarn user, you are more likely to care how many yards than how many ounces.

So, I put up by the yardage, and charge based on production cost given materials, time, and equipment. Then, as a retailer, I have to figure my retail costs into the equation as well, in order to calculate my markup, profit margin, and so forth — which I figure separately from the baseline production costs.

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What Difference Does Drive Wheel Size Make?

Step 1 is the drive ratios. What this refers to is the difference in size between the drive wheel and the driven object — the whorl, which in turn will be moving the spindle (on a spindle wheel such as a charkha or great wheel), the bobbin or flyer (on a single drive wheel), or both bobbin and flyer (on a double drive wheel).

You can measure this most easily by measuring the circumference. Take a piece of string, and wrap it one time around the drive wheel in the same spot where the drive band goes. However long that string is, that’s the circumference for the drive wheel. Now, do the same with the whorl. Let’s suppose that your drive wheel is 15″ around, and the whorl is 5″ around. To calculate the ratio, you divide the number for the drive wheel by the number for the driven object (the whorl). This gets you a 3:1 ratio — the drive wheel is 3 times the size of the whorl. What this means is that for every one time the drive wheel goes all the way around, the whorl is going to make 3 revolutions.

Now, let’s say you have a 20″ drive wheel, and 5″ whorl. That’s a 4:1 ratio, which means every time the drive wheel goes around once, the whorl (and therefore the spindle, flyer, or bobbin) is going to go around 4 times.

You could also get this same effect by keeping your 15″ circumference drive wheel, and going from a 5″ circumference whorl to one that measures 3.75″ in circumference (1/4 of 15″). This is still a ratio of 4:1, though the sizes of the drive wheel and driven object are different from the previous example.

But, let’s say you have that 15″ circumference drive wheel, and what you really want is a 30:1 ratio. At this point, you need a whorl that is half an inch around — very small. What’s wrong with that? The answer is traction — your drive band needs to be able to get a good enough grip on the whorl to cause it to turn, including turning whatever is on the end of it. Mechanically speaking, when your driven object gets smaller, the first thing you notice is it being harder to make it move, and the next thing you notice is that it loses traction and starts to slip — it just can’t get hold of the whorl and make it go.

It’s also harder, from a manufacturing standpoint, to make something really tiny and exact and still durable.

So now let’s say that you move up to a drive wheel that’s 30″ in circumference; now to get a 30:1 ratio, you need a 1″ circumference whorl. There is a lot more room for grip on that! A high ratio setup works more efficiently with larger pulleys (wheels and whorls and whatnot) because of an assortment of traction issues.

There are other factors in play as well. For example, distance between the drive wheel and the whorl changes how much contact the drive band has on the whorl, as does how the drive band is set up. In a double drive system, the drive band is doing double duty, driving both the flyer and the bobbin (just at different rates). There’s more drive band, and more driven objects, and thus more opportunity for slippage and loss of traction — so double drive systems are easier to make work well with larger drive wheels and whorls.

Another factor is that a larger wheel (or a heavier one) will have greater momentum. This means that once you get it going, it’s better able to keep going with less effort, than something smaller and lighter.

So, what does this mean in practice?

1. It’s easier to build a high-ratio wheel with a larger drive wheel.

Therefore, it’s more likely that wheels suited to spinning fast (at high ratios) will have larger drive wheels, while wheels suited to spinning slow (at low ratios) will have smaller ones. A higher speed at the flyer gives you more twist faster; a lower speed gives you less. The thinner your yarn, the more twist it can hold, and the fatter your yarn, the less. So for spinning a very fine yarn, you want high ratios, and for spinning fat yarn, you want lower ones.

2. A wheel with a larger drive wheel will most likely have superior momentum.

This means that once you get it going, it’s going to be easier to keep it going. You’ll get less tired treadling it.

3. A wheel with a larger drive wheel may have limitations when it comes to low ratios.

If you have that 30″ drive wheel and you want a 3:1 ratio, you need a 10″ whorl. Will that fit in your flyer assembly area?

The most common modern wheels are multi-taskers, which do very well for a broad spectrum of types of spinning. They will commonly have drive wheels with diameters from 13″ to 24″, which translates to circumferences between 40″ and 75″ roughly speaking. These wheels can fit in a good range of spaces, and commonly feature multiple ratios between 5:1 and 20:1, making them suited for spinning a wide range of fibers in a variety of ways. Where these wheels fall short is when it comes to being tuned for specific purposes that are at the extremes of the spectrum: super duper thick yarn, or mega ultra fine yarn (or very short stapled fibers that need a lot of twist fast).

Antique “Production” wheels commonly had much larger drive wheels, being suited to producing very large amounts of very fine yarn as fast as a true production spinner could draft. Great wheels, with drive wheels that can be 48″ in diameter (so 4 feet across and over 12 feet all the way around!) are ideal for spinning woolen yarns very very quickly, though the spinner must be able to keep up, of course. Production flyer wheels often have 36″ drive wheels (3 feet across, 9.5 feet all the way around the rim). You’ll also often see such wheels have seemingly small bobbin capacities — they’re for spinning fine yarn for weaving, mainly. You would still pack quite a bit of yardage of fine yarn onto those wheels!

So, when you’re shopping for a wheel, consider what type of yarn you want to spin with it. If you know for a fact you want to spin a lot of fine yarn quickly, you want a big-drive-wheel kind of wheel; if you know you want to churn out bulky low-twist yarn, you want something with a really small drive wheel. If you’re interested in a variety of options that don’t go to such extremes, then a midrange size for a drive wheel is probably a good one for you.

This is also a reason why many veteran spinners have more than one wheel: it is difficult to have only one wheel fill every spinning need. Though many modern wheels can fill most, spinners with work that falls to one end of the spectrum or the other may find that they have a wheel on which they like to do most of their very fine spinning, most of their very bulky spinning, and a wheel that’s good for everything in between.

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Do you know anything about Andean chullu knitting?

I mentioned chullu knitting on the spin-list, and was asked for a little more information. Here’s my reply, and a repost of something from 2005 about learning to do it, with pictures.

The Question and Reply

I’d like to know more about the Chullus you mentioned. Do you know how they are “knitted differently”?

In fact I do. 😉 The basics are that they’re stranded colourwork with 3 and sometimes 4 strands carried and secured with sort of a braid methodology between stitches; the “working side” that you look at is the purl side, and all the work is purled. All the strands are carried around the neck and tensioned that way. I’m told it’s similar to an old Arabic knitting technique, and it’s believed to have made its way to Peru via the Spanish at the time of conquest. They are knitted bottom-up, starting with a rather complicated braided cast-on and typically a zig-zag pointed edging. Traditional patterns are the weaving patterns, but worked horizontally rather than vertically and sometimes with some variations as well.

Are those the “bowler” type hats?

They’re the pointed earflap hats. The form factor is very popular and is often used in hats that are knitted via more European means, but the traditional Andean chullu (sometimes spelled chullo) is a form of knitting that came very close to disappearing in most regions. It’s a significantly steeper learning curve than other forms of knitting, and demands weaverly yarn-management hand knowledge in order to perform with any reasonable rate of speed. A skilled chullu knitter can make on in about 2-3 nights, or one really really long day. They’re knit with the smallest metal needles that can be found (the yarn is small), and the needles are often made from bicycle spokes.

Really interested in the knitting technique, and more about the tightly spun yarn that is used to make them.

The yarn is simply Andean weaving yarn. It’s a 2-ply yarn, spun and plied very very tightly; so tightly that European and US textile traditions view it as hopelessly overspun, both in the spin and the ply. When I learned about it a couple of years ago, we weren’t able on short notice to find small enough needles to work with my stash of Peruvian weaving yarn, so my example was done on size 2 needles with some baby yarn or another that I had lying around.

Part 1

Years and years and years ago, before kindergarten and all, before I spoke Spanish or Quechua, I made friends with a girl — or she made friends with me — even though at the time, we had no language in common. Because when you’re a kid, you don’t need that, and it comes eventually. She was a little older than me and she could talk me into anything. We got older and learned lots of things together, competing with each other to show off our spinning and weaving skills, chasing her family’s sheep around when taking them out to pasture, walking several km to school when it was schooltime… and then I’d go back to the US, and have no friends to play with and no yarn stuff competition with my peers and all that. Then I’d go back to Peru again and there would be my friend, just like before, and we’d pick right up where we left off. I remember being in 3rd grade and thinking about my friend and saying that it was like we were part of the same pattern, except she was the one in Peru and I was the one from the US and so someday, it was going to be nice to have her come where I lived and that would make everything balance out right. She was a lot more competent and accomplished than I was, and quicker, and stronger, and faster, and she kicked my butt at pretty much everything. I had all kinds of chances and opportunities and stuff that she didn’t — just by chance, and all, because I happened to have been born in the US and whatnot.

We got older and stuff, and somewhat more serious and somber in our competitiveness. Eventually we were teenage peers. She could still talk me into anything. I was an inch taller than her. She was way better at math and could do more things at one time than I could. When the woman who was like a grandmother to me died of pneumonia and we walked to her burial in a cold, steady rain, we shared her heavy shawl and I sobbed on her shoulder and she caught me when I slipped and almost fell into the graveyard mud. She had a ewe that bled to death lambing out on a terrace, and we took turns carrying the bloody little lamb back to her house and tried to save him, but he eventually died anyway. Her mother and my mother have the same name. She was as much a daddy’s girl as I was. But she worked harder and did more things than me, and she did them better. I knew we’d be friends forever and she’d always edge me out on pretty much everything. I never grudged her that, or envied her, or anything. She deserved everything in the world and she worked for it all.

But, one day back in the US, I learned she had just died of typhoid at seventeen. In some respects I still haven’t come to grips with the fact that she died and I lived. In my heart of hearts I think I still feel like it’s the most unfair thing I have ever personally been party to in any way. Oh, there’s other stuff that’s up there or tops it for heartbreak, but it’s not as unfair as her dying so young. Her death is the one and only thing I’ve never been able to think about and say “Yeah, but you know, tragedies happen and life isn’t fair, just deal.” I mean I deal, and always have, but I still think, UNFAIR.

My Peruvian godmother once told me that, so long as you can in any way cry a tear for a person who’s dead and gone, you owe that person a debt. It took me a while to think of what debt I might owe my dead friend Angelica and eventually I concluded that, among many other things, I owed it to her to live a worthy life. Because, you see, I got to keep mine and she didn’t. And if it would have been me in her shoes… well it couldn’t have been, really, because white American girls from Ivy League families don’t die of dehydration while recovering from typhoid in a third-world hospital. She even might not have died if she’d gotten sick while we were there. For my whole adult life I have lived with that, without ever a week going by but that I think of her, and wonder what she’d be doing if she were still alive.

Well, time passes. She had a little sister named Carolina. I never knew Carolina well — she was several years younger, and she didn’t spend so much time running around with the kids our age. She was a kid sister, just like I had. But you know… as time passes and people grow up, it’s funny. She looks a lot like her older sister looked, but she’s a bit shorter. She’s doing a lot of the stuff I think her big sister would have done. And right now, she’s in the US and I get to have her stay with me for a few days… like I always thought her sister someday would do. I’m so glad she can come hang out with me and my family and know what my life here is like. She is here in the US studying English and doing some lectures and demonstrations about weaving, for CTTC.

I never learned how to START a chullu, the Peruvian hat, only how to continue one once started, and *that* was 25 years ago. So, since Carolina was going to be working on hers last night I pleaded with her to show me how to start one. And it’s pesky! Which is why you don’t have an 8-year-old start it! 😉 I was never anywhere near as interested in knitting as weaving, so… I can’t say I tried very hard to learn it before, either. But now, I must achieve victory over starting the chullu! Even if this one is a small example fella and not a real one.

Part 2

More work on the chullu knitting last night — which is actually a coin purse type object, so as to be small.


Cutij Kh’eswa

Inside. See? No floats at all, up to 3 colours carried at a time, this tactic is the real meat of this style of knitting… except, so’s the cast-on. And understanding Andean patterns… and knowing how to work with yarn under tension and… well anyway. My mission now is to increase sufficiently that I can do Jakaku Sisan. And that will probably be coin purse sized, so that’ll probably get followed by another cutij-kh’eswa and raki-raki, if I know anything at all about the RULES.

Also, again I vow, the next one of these I make is not going to be sport weight floppy superwash wool. No. It will be high-twist 2-ply handspun.

The finished pouch!

Shown with small pockets (sort of like glove fingers) which will be obscured by the fringe when that’s done being applied.

Totally Unrelated

And also, this being the date that it is… happy birthday, Ed, you’d have been 62 and I still miss you every day and extra on your birthday.

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A Little Recent Spinning, and Some Example Skeins

I’ve been asked, what do the sock batts spin up like? Here’s an example using one batt of the Crown Jewels Luxury Sock Blend (superwash merino and tussah silk). Top: the batts. Middle: the single. Bottom: the 2-ply sock yarn after washing.

Crown Jewels Luxury Sock Blend, in the batt
Crown Jewels Single
Crown Jewels Sock Blend, 2-ply

This is a 2-ply yarn; the skein came to 145 yards, and weighs about 1.4 ounces. Later today or perhaps tomorrow, I’ll have a tube swatch photo of how this knits up on my Autoknitter (you’d be waiting a long time for me to swatch it in a hand-knit sock).

Next up, a one-ounce Franquemont Fibers hand-dyed tussah silk, 2-ply and fine:

Franquemont Fibers Tussah Silk, Salmon, 2-ply

“Look, Abby,” this one says, “It’s really past time you actually bought a macro lens.”

Here it is plied on the bobbin; this yarn annoyed me because I’ve got a chatter at top speed with the scotch tension off entirely on my Suzie Pro right now, and it’s time for extreme wheel maintenance to eradicate it.

1 oz on the bobbin, 2-ply

As much as you can eradicate noise from anything that you treat the way I do that wheel, which is such a workhorse, and I swear I treat it like I was a teenager with a hopped-up Camaro constantly doing donuts in an abandoned parking lot. Honestly, when you’re treadling as fast as you can at a 32:1 ratio, to the point that you’re sweating, and getting about 90 rpm out of the drive wheel, you’ve got the flyer going almost 3000 rpm (and I want it faster! faster! GO!) the truth is it’s not likely to be “quiet.” But I want it quieted back down to flyer whir, and I could maybe get a little faster if I could get the vibration at that speed to stop.

Any guesses as to the yardage? It weighs 30 grams, or just a hair over one ounce.

I’ve skeined it, so I know the yardage, and I’ll tell you after a few guesses. I’m reasonably satisfied that this is about as fine as I can comfortably spin on a wheel right now; it’s not as fine as I can spin on a spindle.

NEWS FLASH! Melanie (PinkLemonTwist) is just about dead on; she guesses 500 yards, and the skein came to 517 yards, and thus about 8,000 ypp.

While I was plying it for 17,000 years, I kept going back and forth everywhere from 400 yards to 700 yards to about 15,576,943,824 yards given the time-slows-to-a-crawl that some plying jobs can cause. I truly had NO idea by the time I was done. None at all.

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Criss-Crossing Wind-on for Low Whorl Spindle

Here’s one good way to start winding yarn onto a low whorl or bottom whorl spindle, shown with a dowel-and-a-drawer-pull make-it-yourself spindle:

With spindle on its side so it’s easy to control, just wrap the end of your yarn or leader around it in one direction:

Go several wraps up, tightly. You can hold the yarn on with one hand and wrap the yarn with your other hand, just to get started. You can also tie the yarn to the spindle, or make a half-hitch at the top of the shaft and slide it down, then twirl the spindle to get the yarn wound up the shaft a few times.

Once you’ve gone several wraps up — the exact number isn’t important — grasp the spindle in one hand and the yarn in the other. Hold the spindle upright, and twirl it — see how the yarn wants to wind on? If it doesn’t want to wind on and it’s slipping, you need to do the first wrapping bit more tightly.

Now, move the hand holding the yarn down, so the yarn that’s about to wind on the next time you twirl the spindle is aiming downwards at an angle.

Once you get to where the yarn is wrapping around the bottom of the shaft, by the top of the whorl, move the hand holding the yarn upwards, so the angle of the yarn winding on changes. Keep twirling, and let the yarn wind upwards.

Now you just keep doing this, twirling the spindle and moving the yarn-holding hand up and down, watching the angle of wind-on and making sure it keeps criss-crossing. For the initial example, I’ve shown it with a fairly steep angle so it’s easy to see; but you can wind it at a much shallower angle, especially once you’re started:

You’ll get the best results and most stable cop (the yarn wound onto your spindle) if you pile up yarn towards the bottom, and then later the middle, so that the narrowest part of your cop is towards the top. This is easy to achieve: just linger a little longer towards the bottom. It may seem to happen for you without you doing anything special.

When you get to where you have 1-2 feet of yarn left to wind on and that’s all, let your upward wind-on keep going all the way up the shaft.

At the top, secure it with a half hitch and you’re good to go, whether you’re plying or spinning. This works in whatever direction you wish to twirl the spindle — but bear in mind you’ll need to keep going the same direction throughout.

Related Items:

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Can You Explain Spinning Wheel Drive Ratios?

The Basics of Spinning Wheel Drive Ratios

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.

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What is blocking?

What is blocking?

It’s when you stretch your completed object out or finish it in one of various ways in order to make it stay a given size and shape. The shawl I’ve been knitting on, here:

will not be that size or shape exactly when it’s done, and the pattern will really pop out once it’s blocked. As it is right now, you can’t really see the pattern — it’s very muddy looking.

Once the shawl’s complete, I’ll wash it (because I also want the mohair to bloom) by hand in cool water, and then roll it up in a towel and squeeze it till it’s only damp. While it’s damp, I will spread it out someplace big enough, tug it here and there to be make the pattern show and line up and so the whole object is the right size, and then pin it, weight it, or lightly go over it with a not-so-hot iron to make it steam a bit. Once it dries, it’s set in place like that (until it gets soaking wet again, of course).

Before blocking:

After blocking:



I’ve promised detailed blocking pictures for the next project to be blocked. 😉

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Why Spin Traditional Yarns?

In this day and age and in this western Europeanized culture, when spinning isn’t exactly something that is done out of necessity; when we have developed machines to do our spinning for us, is the effort to spin nice plain “traditional” yarns really just a sort of backwards timewasting (not taking into account the funness factor)? And the time and effort of handspinning would be better directed toward novelty/art type yarns of a sort that aren’t practical for various reasons to produce in an automated process?

Thanks to Geekling for the question.

This is the central question that I have struggled with for a great deal of my life, having grown up a weaver and spinner and in part, outside of the modern industrialized world. Many times in my life I have asked myself what, if anything, it means that I’ve achieved the skill levels that I have in the textile arts — and what value do these skills have in the modern world?

Certainly these skills are not valuable because without them, I would go unclothed (or clad in skins) — as would have been the case before industry and mass production. Unlike cooking — an archaic skill with modern interpretations and adaptations which most people roundly agree remains useful — textile production is no longer in any way essential to our daily lives. While most people will, at some point in their lives, have reason to be intensely grateful that they can cook, or negatively affected by inability to do so, most people in the modern world can cruise through their entire lives without ever having to produce a textile object of any type.

So what value is there? I think there are several factors at play, for me personally, narrowing the focus solely to spinning traditional-style yarns, which is a small subset of the textile techniques I personally consider extremely important. I’m also leaving out “fun” as your question says to do.

First, although it is possible to buy many kinds of yarn which are commercially produced (and cloth, and clothing) at a lower cost than the time invested to produce the same thing would be worth at even minimum wage, the truth is that the ability to produce your own goods exactly to your specifications allows you a much broader range of options than if you are forced to select from pre-fab goods. This could be compared to saying, in a world where you can buy chicken soup in a can, why would anyone bother making it from scratch? The answer is that the chicken soup from scratch is very likely just a superior product to that in a can, or made from a recipe that is unique and not found on the mass market. Clearly, for many people, that’s not a sufficient reason to bother with all the hassle involved in making homemade chicken soup, or baking your own bread, or whatever. But for others, there is something that makes it unquestionably worthwhile to have, say, great-grandma’s chicken soup just the way you want it.

The development of machines to make textiles is truly one of the most pivotal revolutions in history. Truly, it changed the world utterly, and unlike many other technological revolutions, did such a good job that it rendered itself all but invisible. But essential to the actual adoption of technological, mass-produced goods is the willingness of individuals to accept a lesser product than what can be custom-produced. We accept clothing that comes close to fitting, but that doesn’t fit us as well as something made expressly for each individual. We accept fabric that doesn’t wear as long, because it will be trivial to replace. We accept yarn that isn’t really as good or quite exactly what we want, because we can have it NOW, and we don’t have to learn to produce it.

Another factor is that there is value in the preservation of knowledge. All knowledge. Even apart from the fact that mastery of traditional techniques can allow for greater control and range of options in producing things that aren’t practical to mass-produce or make by mechanized means, there is historical value in making sure that things of the past are not lost from the world. As many people will agree that there is value in studying, say, hieroglyphics, or researching construction methods used in ancient Rome, so too there is value in researching, understanding, and preserving textile technologies. I would argue that it is all the more essential that these be learned by active practitioners, as there is far more to truly skilled textile production than can be simply written down, or than can be gleaned from examining old objects, old tools, and so forth. What’s more, because textiles are so commonplace in our lives that we don’t even think about them most of the time, I would contend that textile technologies are at far greater risk of becoming lore that is truly lost — a loss that impoverishes the entire world. Assuming, of course, that you believe as I do that there’s value in history.

I also personally believe that there’s value in really understanding things — that understanding the principles, premises, and so forth allow you to really maximize what you’re able to get out of technology, even. For example, I believe that if you drive a car, you’ll be a better driver for knowing how to drive stick, how gears work, when to use what kind of gear, and so forth — even if you drive an automatic transmission. And understanding how brakes work, what they do when they’re working well and what they do when they aren’t operating at peak efficiency, not only makes you safer and happier about driving, but lets you identify when it’s time to perform maintenance — even if you just pay someone else to do the maintenance. And you’re better off having a sense of whether or not a brake job is a big, hairy deal or a minor thing — you will be less vulnerable to being taken advantage of by an unethical repair person, for example. So too with producing textiles: knowing how to do it, what the materials are, and so forth, can make you a better judge of value when you do go to buy mass-produced items. Or handmade items, at that.

The final value factor for me is a little harder to nail down. That value is that it is worth developing skill to create even that which can be done by a machine. Machines are, at their root, devices contrived to do that which humans can do, thus liberating humans to do other things; or devices to simplify and aid in the objectives that humans wish to achieve. The relationship between humans and machines is a theme that runs throughout all of our daily lives, and has throughout history and across every culture of which I have any knowledge whatsoever. In thinking about that… I really like this quote:

One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man.
~Elbert Hubbard, The Roycroft Dictionary and Book of Epigrams, 1923

There are countless stories, tales, fictions and realities of the struggle of man vs. machine. In producing more traditional handspun yarns, where similar goods are produced by machines, am I some sort of textile John Henry? Well, perhaps. But time and again we see that there is some intrinsic desire that humans have to do the work ourselves, for reasons which are perhaps primal and hard to quantify. I am called to by forces I can’t fully verbalize, that exhort me to engage in textile production and to preserve the lore of doing so. Others are called to by forces which say, “Make music, even though machines can do that,” or “Write stories, even though people watch TV more than they read these days.” It is a part of the human condition — and answering those calls has a real value, even though it is very hard to put into words.

Originally posted in “Spinning Fiber” community, 2005