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Spindle Full, Spindle Empty, Need More Spindles

There’s a lot to say about filling up a spindle. I often hear from folks who have been told that a big problem with spindles is that you just can’t put a lot of yarn on them, and that’s one of the reasons why wheels win out.

The thing is, it isn’t true. Flyer wheels have absolute limits in terms of how much you can put on there: once the yarn on your bobbin is rubbing the flyer arms, you definitely can’t get more on there, no matter how much you want to. Let’s roll back the clock to 5 years ago or so…

I had a WooLee Winder bobbin full with at least 500 yards and 5 ounces of 3-ply yarn, and there was just no way to get the last bit on there, but it was completely mandatory that this be one skein because I had planned out this whole colour sequence thing in overly elaboraqte detail. I was seriously annoyed; “If I were doing this with a spindle,” I said, “it would have been no problem at all to just get the last 30-40 yards crammed on there. Grrr.” So that’s what I did:

I wound all three singles together into a butterfly, then plied from the other end onto my Peruvian canti (plying spindle) and the problem was solved in no time at all… other than that I had to pull the stuff on the spindle off through the orifice and closed-ring hooks on the WooLee Winder, so I could skein the yarn off the bobbin.

I still remember sitting there thinking, “I so would not have had this issue and waste of time if I’d just been using a spindle to ply this from the start.” Any time that I arguably saved with the wheel and WooLee Winder combo had been eaten up in dealing with this limitation. I knew from experience that I could put at least 8 ounces onto that spindle and it was a real shock to come up against the hard limitations of fancier equipment.

Mind you, this doesn’t mean you have to cram a spindle insanely full all the time. It can be a great way to work with thread and small quantities.

This is an impossible to photograph project that I’ve been poking at here and there for a few years. It’s some merino/cashmere top that I split up carefully and wound into small packages to preserve the colour sequence, and I’ve been gradually spinning little bits, winding it off onto another spindle, then winding it back onto a pair of matched spools for electrical wire that… well, it’s a long story. But this is one of those funny little extreme frog hair projects I constantly have in the background. I do the rewinding when I get to the point that I’ve used up one of the small colour-sequenced pieces. Someday when I get to that point, these two electrical spools will be full of super delicate merino/cashmere thread ready to be made into a carefully-controlled 2-ply thread with enthralling colour shifts.

I’ve got a similarly sized-spindle sitting by my slothing chair in the family room right now, and I’m periodically, carefully, meticulously spinning the yield of my first cotton crop: two precious bolls worth. This is intended for a SOAR project, because the cotton seeds came from Phreadde, and it’s a miracle that I grew plants without killing them, and cotton actually happened. Some seeds have been replanted this year, and if all goes well I’ll have at least 4 times the yield, and gradually, as time goes by, I’m going to get to where there’s a meaningful amount of cotton, from the half-dozen seeds Phreadde originally gave me at SOAR 2007.

I guess we can also take a sideline here and talk about why it is I really do desperately need more and more and more spindles, even if I keep getting spindles that seem incredibly similar to ones I already have. Here’s one reason.

I can’t remember, until I wind off, whether this was half of the singles I was doing for a specific project which explained managing colour sequences… or all of them. I have to wind off this spindle neatly and track the colour changes so I can remember, because I lost my notes. But I do remember that I was winding the cop with an eye towards showing the colour changes, and I took all these pictures along the way, and… yeah. Great. So I have to spend an afternoon going through those photos and winding that yarn off carefully, and then I can remember what I was gonna do next.

This one isn’t done yet. I just have to remember where I put the rest of the fiber.

I can’t wind off this one until I get a good picture in the right light, because in real life, it’s insanely pretty. But all my pictures keep not coming out. This spindle was Divine Bird Jenny’s, but we swapped some stuff. I love it that it was hers so I want to take pretty pictures of this yarn on it.

And then there’s this one, also plagued with the same problem, which is that I really want to take pictures of it as it is, because… it’s pretty, and something else (I’ll get to that). It’s my prettiest Bosworth in my opinion, and I spun this cop for exhibition purposes. I wanted to show something specific.

Can you see it in this picture?

I think it’s easiest to see in this one. The top part of it — closer to the whorl — is wound criss-crossing, and the lower part of it is not. Why would I do that? The answer is first of all that switching between these methods is part of what lets me build a stable, dense and full cop (the cop, remember, is the spun yarn you’ve stored on your spindle). Winding around and around packs the yarn tighter, but it gets slipperier and sloppier more quickly. Winding in an X holds it more stable and winds on more yarn per twirl of the spindle, but the packing isn’t usually as dense. Combining these methods allows for the best of all possible worlds in packing a spindle.

This was my carryaround spindle for about a month, then my sit-in-the-kitchen spindle for a week or two. It’s an 11 gram Bosworth featherwight, and it’s got 66 grams of merino/silk singles on it. For me, this is pretty much a functional limit with this spindle. The spindle still spins totally fine and would work for ages more, but I’m out of space for the yarn to go without compromising the shaft pace I need to set the spindle in motion, the stability of the cop, or the ability to keep the spun yarn securely in place when I start spinning the next length. More than this, and it would start to get annoying.

Allright, the truth is, it started to get a little annoying in the last few grams. But — and this is where I was going at the outset — it got a little annoying. It didn’t get impossible. I wanted to get the whole batch onto that spindle, so I decided to, and it went on there. There are ways — which there aren’t when you hit the hard limits of a bobbin and flyer.

At 7 times its unladen weight, the spindle performs fine — but differently from how it did at 11 ounces. I’d be lying if I said a brand-new spinner could do this. It takes time and practice, knowing the tool, knowing the yarn, knowing your own habits and tendencies.

I won’t know for a while — until I’ve wound it off, plied it, and measured it — just how much yarn there was here. But I’m reasonably sure it’s, well, a lot. I’m going to hazard a guess I’ll get around 600-800 yards of 2-ply yarn from this when all is said and done. I’m tempted to skein it and measure it as singles, for science, but I’m just too lazy right now and besides, I want it in plying ball form for an impending project that requires demonstrating that.

In any case, don’t let anybody tell you spindles don’t hold a lot. It isn’t true. On the other hand, what does appear to be true is that you need about 8 zillion spindles to have enough. I truly hope this helps.

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Spindle Positions

Wow, I want to thank you all for the terrific responses to the question about spinning standing up vs. sitting down! I would urge anybody who hasn’t to read the comments — there’s some fantastic food for though there.

Here’s why I asked: over the past few months, I’ve heard lots of people say lots of different things about spindle spinning positions, some stated very authoritatively and completely contradicting each other. In some cases, when I’ve talked to folks about these things, they’ve told me they were told in no uncertain terms that you really couldn’t spin sitting down, or standing up, or without reaching your hands way up over your head, or without using your whole body, or all kinds of things. So I started to wonder: first of all, who’s hearing these things, and second of all, who’s telling them?

What’s interesting is that if asked, a lot of people can’t remember where they heard, say, that you can’t spin standing up; others say that it just never occurred to them that they could sit down; so there really doesn’t seem to be an elite cadre of misinformation ninjas out there telling people untruths about the spindle or anything. But things that seem obvious to some of us, it turns out, are totally not. And some of the things we assume may even be mistaken.

I, for instance, assumed it was obvious you could just sit down. Or stand up. But then someone told me she’d found a particular video helpful learning to spin (which I thought was interesting since the video didn’t actually cover what most of the world has considered to be “spinning” for thousands of years), and I asked her what she’d found helpful about it — after all, I’m always looking to improve on my toolkit for getting folks started and reducing the time it takes them to be able to be hands-on trying it in ways that lead to rapid success. “Oh!” she told me, “Mostly it’s that the lady in that video is sitting down. All the other ones, people are standing up. I want to learn a spinning method that can be used sitting down, not one that requires me to stand.” You could have knocked me over with a feather. I made a mental note to add “And of course, you can sit or stand as you prefer,” to the things I make sure to say when teaching a brand-new spinner.

You can spin, or ply, standing up.

You can spin, or ply, sitting down.

You can spin, or ply, while walking around. Heck, you can do it while dancing.

Something else to remember is that when it comes to spindle ergonomics, we’re all different and spindles are largely different from each other, and this is one of the great strengths of the spindle: you can figure out what works best for you personally. With a wheel, you’re restricted to some extent by the shape and size of the equipment — but with a spindle, your range of motion can be anything at all.

So if you’ve only felt you could do it one way, how do you get to be able to do it other ways? You’ll all hate me for this, but the answer is simple: just give it a try. At first it may feel awkward, but that’s normal enough. It takes time for a new movement to feel comfortable. And if you’re just starting out, I would urge you to vary your position a lot, and try lots of different things. You might be amazed what a difference it makes to be able to spin comfortably in any position at all.

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So here’s a question

I’m hearing two questions asked a lot lately, and I’m intrigued about them, so I figure it’s time to Ask The Blog. Are you ready? Okay, the first question is:

“Can you spin with a spindle while you’re standing up?”

and the second one is:

“Can you spin with a spindle while you’re sitting down?”

So I’d love to hear from you: how do you do it, and why? When you were starting out, did you strongly believe you had to do it one way or the other? Do you remember why you may have thought that? Has your opinion on the subject changed over time?

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Teaching Schedule 2009

Upcoming classes / events:

at The Spinning Loft, Howell MI; Friday evening 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. and 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday. Class space limited! Learn backstrap and pickup techniques in the traditional Andean way, using traditional patterns and methods, you’ll start with weaving, then move your way up to warping and tying heddles. This class will run from Friday evening July 17 through Sunday July 19.

at Tina Newton’s

, Portland, Oregon, August 6-9, with Denny (yes, THAT Denny) McMillan. Ideal for the brand-new spinner or the wheel spinner looking to get comfortable with spinners, Denny and I will serve as the spinning gateway drug pushers and open up the whole world of spinning for you.

in Frankfort, Kentucky, September 26, 2009, 10AM to 5PM; 800-441-9665 to register.

at Sun River Resort in Bend, Oregon, October 25-November 1. I’ll be teaching a 3-day workshop on drum carded blends, and a half-day retreat session on the same topic, 4 times.

There are a few more dates not set in stone yet, and I’ll update this page when those are firm.

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Too Much Twist

So how much twist is really too much twist? It’s common for spinners to talk about something having too much twist, especially if they’re new — but the truth is that yarn can handle way more twist than you’d think, and the exact right amount of twist is really subjective. When I’m talking about the question of too much twist vs. too little, I like to describe it this way:

Too little twist: Your fibers can still be drafted; the yarn slips and tries to keep thinning out, and with sufficient weight or tension, would drift right apart.

Too much twist: Your fibers are all so tightly twisted that the only thing they can do is kink up on themselves super-tight to ease the strain. When you try to pull them out straight, the yarn snaps.

All yarn, as you’re spinning it and before the twist has settled, or it has been plied and finished, will kink up on itself. That’s normal, and it’s supposed to! If the singles you’re spinning don’t kink up on themselves, you probably don’t have enough twist for your yarn to be structurally sound.

And that’s the crux of the matter: yarn has too little, or too much, twist, when the amount of twist causes it to be structurally unsound. This means there’s a huge spectrum in between too much and too little, and that whole spectrum is okay. It’s up to you, as the spinner, to decide where along that spectrum you want your yarn to fall, and you would make that choice based on many, many different things. When you’re starting out, I recommend erring on the side of having what feels like more twist than you want. Chances are, it’s actually less twist than you think it is, and besides, there’s a lot more you can do to salvage a yarn that’s a little twistier than you ideally wanted, than to salvage a yarn that is so loosely spun it simply drifts apart.

These things said, my son recently provided me with a great visual example of what happens when you get too much twist.

Here we have one computer headset, suitable for… you know, everything a tween could possibly want to do with a headset on a computer, plus for keeping Mom in her office from having to listen to the same song over and over and over again (hey, does that end? I know it ends; I don’t do that anymore, but when did I stop? Is there hope that this will end before he moves out?). This headset is dangerously broken, though you can’t tell from the picture above. Maybe this will help:

Can you see what’s going on with that cord? Well, let’s look closer.

Up at the top, you can see where it’s kinking up. Down at the bottom, you can see where it’s… got issues.

Here’s what happened. Every time the manchild would take off the headset, he’d drop it on his desk or the floor (sigh), and do it in such a manner as to introduce a single twist. When he would put it on, he would pick it up (usually from the floor), and give it another twist to orient it correctly before donning it. In this way, much twist was built up in the cord, and after a time, it kinked up on itself and became short enough that it wouldn’t reach his head. To solve this, he placed his hands on either side of the kink, and yanked it out straight. And just as with yarn, this cause breakage.

Oh yeah. As you can see, the headset cord is actually composed of a number of fibrous things internally, protected by a vinyl tube on the outside. This tube is intended to shield the headset’s cables, keeping sound transmission clear, and preventing other potential electrical hazards (though granted, those risks are pretty low with a headset, but then again, if it’s being thrown on the floor of a tween’s bedroom, you just never know). It is the tube which has failed structurally due to excess twist. The wires inside are somewhat more twist-tolerant — but in time, these too would fail.

You can see it above getting ready to happen. The vinyl is stretched and stressed by twist, and the wires are starting to poke through at the main kink-up point. This same thing will happen with the fibers in your yarn — first they will get stressed, and then they will break. Just like this headset cord, your yarn only has so much twist-carrying capacity, and when you exceed that, it will give way.

The correct solution to this problem, as we have explained to the manchild with his new headset (because seriously, I cannot work in my office if I have to listen to whatever soundtrack it is that has been put to Bionicle videos on youtube, and there are times when I absolutely must be working in my office and simply do not have the strength of character to engage in the lengthy argument about turning that crap down, particularly given the karmic sledgehammer that is yet to come my way in this respect due to the fact that I spent my teenage years playing the guitar for 8 hours a day), is to remove the twist. This can easily be accomplished by unplugging the headset and allowing the twist to run out, or, if the twist has started to settle, holding one end of the cord and spinning the headset in the opposite direction to remove the twist.

He has also been warned: his mother is very, very good at gauging twist, and will not have a problem detecting failure on his part to properly manage twist in his new headset.

In other news, today is registration day for the Spin-Off Autumn Retreat. Here’s wishing you all great luck and the classes you’re hoping for, and I look forward to seeing you there.