Spin of the wheel

18 06 2013

Today, a smallish vacation from “Here’s what’s burning a hole in my brain this week.”

The banner across the top of this page is a pretty good indication of my love for fiber and spinning. And you’d think, given just how much I like it, that perhaps I would post more about it. So in a quick summary, this is what I do for fun.

This is the starting material.


More strictly, MY starting material, because for other people the starting material is standing out in a field, attached to a breathing animal. I can process raw fleece, and I even get the satisfaction of it. But it is a whole bunch of splashy, dirty work to do a whole fleece, so I take the princess route and buy processed fiber, typically in roving form. I like to get it in big bunches of at least a pound when I can find it, although that’s a challenge with the handpaints I adore. I’m currently spinning a one-pound batch of BFL from one of my favorite artists, Christina Parham at the Dyepot. (If you love spinning at all? Go look at her stuff. Now. This posting can wait.)

This is my Lendrum spinning wheel.

Possibly my favorite place in the world.

Possibly my favorite place in the world.

I have a couple of spinning wheels – an Ashford Joy, and a Lendrum folding wheel. Both are officially travel wheels, meaning that they fold into a smaller form for transport. The Ashford folds with much less fuss, and that’s the one I usually carry to work with me. The Lendrum has a wider range of ratios, meaning that I can go all the way from bulky yarns down to the finest lace. It also has a higher orifice, making it more comfortable to sit at for long periods of time. I do much of my spinning at home on the Lendrum, and she is simply one of the finest wheels in existence.

The idea of spinning is pretty simple – fibers will drift apart into random bits of fluff on their own, but when you put some twist into them, they stick together. The skill is in how fine you want your final yarn to be, and what kind of texture you’d like it to have. Most of my spinning is pretty straightforward. I like to use lighter weight yarns (sport and lighter) so that’s what I usually spin.

This is what a bobbin full of the BFL looks like.

A beautiful bobbin of BFL.

A beautiful bobbin of BFL.

This is one of Christina’s more subtle handpaints, so that the colors will blend beautifully no matter what. In this case, I’ve decided to make a two-ply yarn. That means I’ll spin two bobbins of the wool to make singles, and then ply the two singles together to make the yarn. The colors will not necessarily line up between the two singles during plying. In a dramatic handpaint, this can be really obvious – with this one it will be more subtle.

Once the bobbins are both full, I can move on to plying. One of the beauties of the Lendrum is the plying head with its extra-large bobbin, which allows me to ply two full bobbins into one plied yarn without breaking. Plying is done with the wheel going in the opposite direction of the spin twist, which balances out the energy of the twist in the singles. Balancing that energy gives you a yarn that hangs smoothly, one without ideas of its own about how a garment should be shaped. (There’s a use for unbalanced – “energized” – yarn if that’s your particular thing. I don’t want to argue with my knitting.)

The plied product.  This turned out to be about 750 yards.

The plied product. This turned out to be about 750 yards.

The plied yarn, unsurprisingly, is bulkier than the singles. The surprise is in just how much bouncier it is, particularly after it’s washed. Because, as my spinning teacher noted: the yarn isn’t done until it’s washed, just like a cake isn’t done until it’s baked. Before you can wash it, though, you have to wind it off into a skein, using a niddy-noddy. This one is a two-yard model, meaning that one wind completely around is two yards of yarn. So you get a wound skein, and you know how much is in it.

Wound on the niddy-noddy.

Wound on the niddy-noddy.

Washing is done is really hot water. I can hear you yelling from here, after all those years of cold-water washes for your woolen treasures. What you were trying to avoid was felting – when that sweater shrinks and hardens into something that nobody can wear. Felting isn’t caused by heat. It’s caused by agitation – and if you agitate in hot water, that’s a really efficient form of felting. And that’s why you avoided hot water washes.

That water is hotter than I'd touch with bare hands.

That water is hotter than I’d touch with bare hands.

But if you’re really careful about not agitating your wool, you can put it into really hot water – and I mean that it’s so hot I don’t want to touch it, in spite of my son’s claims that I have asbestos fingers. The hot water will do some of the cleaning work you were trying to do in swishing it around. I usually soak my yarn in hot water with Eucalan for ten to twenty minutes and let the water drain out. I’ll gently squeeze out the water and hold the drippy mass while I run a warm rinse. If you’re doing this at home, don’t let the water run onto your wool!!! Even the force of the water coming out of the tap is agitation, and you can felt your wool faster than you think.

After the yarn is washed, I lay the wet skein out on a towel and roll it up. I don’t wring the resulting roll – I put it on the bathroom floor and walk on it. This leaves you with a nicely damp skein that you can hang to dry with minimal dripping.  And then it gets hung to dry.

Skeins in the bathroom.  They really do hang just that smoothly on their own, without weights.

Skeins in the bathroom. They really do hang just that smoothly on their own, without weights.

I don’t ever put a weight on the skein for drying. I’ve seen a bunch of recommendations about how this will make your skein hang straight. And it might, but that’s the illusion of balance, and not the real thing. It’s also going to stretch your yarn into something it wouldn’t be on its own. Which seems like a minor deal until you’re making something in which size matters. Imagine doing your gauge swatch and getting it dead on, then making a beautiful sweater – and then when you wash it, it shrinks to about a size smaller than you were expecting. (I’m guessing this is the reason they tell you to wash gauge swatches… to which I respond OH YES HA HA HA HA THAT WILL TOTALLY HAPPEN.)  I hate swatching. I do it, but I can guarantee that I don’t wash them and wait for them to dry. You’d think that anyone with the patience of a knitter would be totally fine with investing the extra time in making sure gauge is just precisely so.  That knitter may exist, but not in this house.

Once it’s dry, you wind it on the niddy-noddy again, and twist it into a skein for storage. That’s when I label it with fiber content, weight, and length.

Off the niddy-noddy, and twisted into a skein.

Off the niddy-noddy, and twisted into a skein.

And voila, yarn.  That pound of BFL spun into about 1600 yards of a nice sport/fingering weight yarn.  Not sure yet what I’ll do with it – so for right now I’ll squeeze it and hug it and call it George.




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