One of the questions that I get asked a lot is, "Why should I spin my own wool, and knit a sweater, when I can buy one for $20 at the store?" That’s a fair question, but it demonstrates a lack of knowledge about the benefits of wool, and why people are taking time to spin and knit their own clothing.
Wool is a natural and renewable fiber - that makes it good for the environment. Wool is also extremely warm and durable to wear – that makes it good for you! Cotton is also a natural renewable fiber, but lacks the warmth qualities of wool. High quality 100% wool products are difficult to find, and often quite expensive.
So, why not buy that sweater off the rack at the local clothing store? A wool garment from the store generally comes from the worst grades of wool. Usually it is scratchy, and often people think that they must be allergic to wool because of this reaction. The wool in these garments usually comes off the belly or haunches of the sheep, and is of the poorest quality. These low priced garments may also be made from the wool of rougher coated sheep breeds from farms that raise market lambs.
Another factor in the softness of wool is the method used to process it. Commercial wool is processed in an acid bath. This eats all of the vegetable matter, manure and other debris out of the fibers. It is a very efficient process and the wool that is treated this way is very clean, however the process also roughens the wool somewhat.
The wool you get off your own sheep is much softer and nicer to wear, handle, and use over all - so a sweater that has been grown, processed and spun naturally, then knit by hand into a sweater is not at all on the same level as the sweater you might see in the store. These garments are more comparable to couture clothing, and a sweater of this kind would cost several hundred dollars to purchase. Lastly, spinning and knitting provide very valuable entertainment. If you enjoy using your hands, and don't like sitting still, then a spinning and knitting hobby will forever change long car drives and waiting in line. Part of the enjoyment of this hobby is the process of creating the end product. So not only do you clothe your family in high quality warm garments, but you also provide yourself with lots of entertainment.
For those of you who would like to try spinning, you might wonder how to get started. When someone says "spinner", your first thought may be of an older lady, sitting sedately in front of a beautiful Saxon style spinning wheel. She has a cup of tea nearby on a table with some lovely cookies and baked goods. That’s a nice image, but is not the reality of modern spinners. Today’s spinners are very young as often as not (and I’ve known more than one with pink hair and tattoos). Spinners today, are men, women, children and people of all ages and walks of life, and you can easily find a spinner that has interests similar to you own.
If you want to try spinning, then your best bet is to go to a local spinning supply store, and take private or group classes. There is nothing that can replace good quality instruction from a knowledgeable spinner. For some however, there is no such place within hours and hours, so you may have to muddle through on your own. If you think you would like to learn to spin, and don’t have easy access to a local instructor, then I would suggest that you make or buy a small hand-spindle to learn with.
The spinning wheel was first invented around the year 500 AD in the region of modern India. Before that, the humble spindle is how all of the thread and yarns were spun. Just because it's humble doesn’t mean it’s not versatile. With a spindle, you can spin super fine yarns, threads, heavy yarn, or any other type of yarn you can imagine. If you don't have a wheel then this is the ideal place to start, because you can make one for practically nothing, or buy one for very little. The only disadvantage to the spindle is that they do not spin the yarn as fast as a wheel, but for a beginner this is a big advantage!
The best beginner spindle I have used is made with two CDs and a dowel. It spins for a very long time, doesn't spin as fast as some of the lighter spindles that are available, and is easy and inexpensive to make. To make your own, you will need the following things:
1. A dowel - size is not super important but I recommend a 3/8" diameter dowel. It should also be cut to about one foot in length.
2. A cup hook or wire that can be bent into a hook, if you wish to use one. You can also make a notch in the shaft and use a half hitch knot if you don't have a hook on hand.
3. Two CDs - although many free CDs come in the mail, I prefer to use good heavy ones. I use those that I buy in bulk for personal computer use. You can recycle these and use the old ones.
4. You can purchase rubber grommets at farm stores and auto parts stores. You need to choose one that matches the size of your dowel, so the inside hole (bore diameter) should be 3/8", the panel hole should be 5/8" to match the hole in the CDs, and finally the outside diameter about 7/8 ". Look for one that will fit the CD hole, and comes close to the dowel size.
5. Electrical tape - if you couldn't find the exact grommet you needed you can add some tape to your dowel to enlarge it a bit.
6. A serrated knife, or small saw and scissors.
Cut your dowel to be about 12 inches long, and use a push pin to make a pilot hole as close to the center of one end as possible. Now screw the cup hook into this hole firmly.
You will notice that the grommet has a groove around its middle. This is what holds the CDs tightly.
Stack the CDs, one on top of the other, then take the grommet and start pushing the grommet into the holes of the CDs. This is not an easy process since the grommet should fit very tightly.
Just keep trying to get the CD holes wedged into the slot in the sides of the grommet. Once it is started then you can pry the edges of the grommet up and push it into the holes as you go around.
Once you have manhandled and forced the grommet into the center of the CDs, slide your dowel inside. If you were lucky enough to get a grommet that was just the right size you're done!
If not take your electrical tape and start wrapping it around the dowel, about two or three inches below the cup hook carefully (lining up the edges) until it looks big enough, cut it off and try sliding the CDs on. You want a nice snug fit so keep adding layers of tape until it doesn't slip.
You’re almost ready to spin with your new CD spindle, but first you will need some fiber, and you will also need to properly prepare it. We are going to begin with commercially prepared fibers, and there is a list of places to purchase them at the end of the article.
We will start spinning using roving. Roving is a continuous rope of carded fibers that are ready to spin, you may want to break off pieces about 12 inches long.
The roving is often too large to work with for a beginner, so take your roving and carefully split it down the middle to form two strips instead of one. You can do this again with each half to make four pieces or more.
Try for a size that is somewhere around the size of your little finger. This is called pre-drafting, and it will let you concentrate on getting a good twist in your yarn without worrying about the thickness of the yarn. Once you become accustomed to spinning, you will learn to regulate the thickness of the yarn while you spin - this is called drafting.
This is a great time to talk about what types of wool to begin with. Most people have heard of Merino wool. Spinners LOVE Merino, and it is wonderful wool, but it is not the easiest to spin for beginners. I always recommend good quality Shetland roving, but Blue Faced Leicester, Border Leicester, Rambouillet, Romney, or any of the medium length wool breeds are also good. My favorites are Shetland, Cotswold, Wensleydale, and Blue Faced Leicester. You can purchase these in many places, and a small amount to get started with, is not that expensive. Look at the breed registries and check the members list for local suppliers, also contact a local spinning guild, or yarn shop. You can spin, wools, mohair, synthetics, metallic, silk, soy silk, bamboo, alpaca, llama, angora and even yak fiber. The list goes on and on. You can shop online and get some really wonderful products delivered to your door.
The first thing you will need to master is twist. Twist refers to how many times the spindle turned in a given distance on the yarn, usually one inch. So if you spin the spindle 6 times for each inch of yarn, you get a tpi (twists per inch) of 6. Twist can be very challenging to control for a beginner. You want to aim for yarn that doesn't easily pull apart, but isn't so twisted that it wants to knot up and look like a big mess.
This is hard at first, because the thin areas will absorb more twist than the thicker places. As long as your thicker areas are not coming apart you should have enough twist, and needn't worry about the thin areas because they will have more twist than the thicker places. In the beginning, you want to get control of the twist rate, try not to worry about the yarn being big and thick in places, and tiny and thin in others. Just try to keep the twist under control.
These are examples of a good twist on the yarn. Notice the thick and thin areas? They will knit up and lend a beautiful texture to the finished product so don't worry about that. This is what most beginners will make for the first few hundred yards, it is very soft and lovely when worked up so enjoy spinning and avoid frustration by accepting that your yarn will look like this for a while and THAT IS OK!!!
Now that you know about twist, and what to watch for, you are ready to start spinning on your own CD spindle. You will need to attach a leader onto the spindle. To do this, use a piece of regular yarn.
You can also add some twist to some of your roving by twisting it clockwise with your fingers. Keep twisting until you have a yarn piece about 18 - 24 inches long.
Just tie it on below the CDs, and wind up 18 to 24” around the shaft. Be sure that you wind your leader around the shaft counterclockwise, and then over the whorl (the CDs). You should wrap a few turns around the top of the shaft, and then through the hook.
There are a few things to notice here, first, can you see that the yarn is wrapped around the spindle counterclockwise? The other way to look at this is that if you were to hold the yarn and turn the spindle to wind the yarn on, you would turn the spindle clockwise
Practice spinning the spindle while holding the leader. Which hand feels most comfortable for holding the leader? Which hand is the most effective to spin the spindle? Practice spinning the spindle with just the leader until you figure this out. As you practice, the yarn will become over twisted. You may need to let the spindle hang free and spin counterclockwise to release this extra twist.
I encourage you to do everything with both hands to find what is most comfortable for you. None of this is very hard, in fact, it is primarily a rhythm that must be learned, so you can use either hand, and just do what feels the most comfortable. Basically one hand controls the twist and the other drafts and spins the spindle. I draft and spin the spindle with my right, dominant hand, and hold the yarn in my left hand. Either hand is fine and there is no wrong way. If yarn is being made, then you must be doing it right!
There are several good ways to join the roving to the leader, but I think the easiest (and least likely to come apart) method is to separate the leader yarn by un-twisting it a few inches and splitting it into two "tails". Pull a bit of your fiber out a little to form a tip and place this between the two pieces of your leader.
Now pinch all of this together between your fingers. Hold the spindle upright, and while allowing the spindle to hang freely from the leader, give it a spin CLOCKWISE!!! Be sure and continue pinching the join area, it will only take a bit of pressure. ALWAYS clockwise, if you accidentally spin it the other way, then the twist will be removed and the fibers will separated and fall apart. So be sure and always spin the spindle clockwise.
Let the spindle spin for a few seconds, then stop it and hold it firmly between your knees. This is called parking. Once it is firmly between your knees, grasp the roving with your spinning hand, and hold it firmly, being careful to not pull the fibers apart.
Pull very slowly, and you will feel the fiber begin to separate a little and slide apart. This is called drafting, and by this action you will decide how thick or thin your yarn will be. For now it will be thick in places and thin in others, don't worry about this.
Once you have drafted the fiber just a little, hold the fiber up, and relax your pinching fingers just a little and then slide them up, you will see the twist follow them up the yarn.
Now I can draft the roving just a little, and after relaxing my pinching fingers, I can slide them up the roving until I run out of twist. Then it will be time to spin, park, draft, relax, slide and wind on the yarn you just made.
You might like to wrap your roving around your arm, or hold it away from the leader with your pinky. I fit gets too close, it will get sucked up and spun into the new yarn. You can also use a wrist distaff, so again, whatever feels comfortable to you is what will be best.
If we look at the previous picture again, we see where the brown leader and white roving combined to make a barber pole section, this is where I made the join. It is easy to see how the fibers spun together to make yarn, and it is also easy to see that this is a Z twist yarn because twist on the light and dark bands go in the same direction as the middle of the Z.
Keep spinning the spindle, then park it between your knees, and continue to spin yarn. When the length gets too long, unwind the top of the spindle and rewind the new length of yarn onto the bottom of the spindle. Now just rewind the yarn back onto the top of the spindle, and keep on spinning.
Once you have a whole spindle full, you can ply the yarn, or wind it on a niddy noddy and set the twist. Once the yarn is on a skein you can give it a dunk in some warm water, being careful not to agitate the water. Gently remove the yarn and squeeze out the excess water. Hang to dry and then it will be ready to use.
Congratulations on your new hobby!
A few helpful hints on shopping for spinning fibers - look for the following set of terms:
staple length - pull one or two fibers out, the length of these is your staple length, it should be about 4 inches for best results for a beginner.
Vegetable Matter/hay - some is expected, but if it looks like there is a lot or excessive, then pass it up!
Tightly crimped or very crimpy - avoid these at first, as they are a little harder to spin.
Top - this is a word to describe the processing, it is fine for beginners and experts alike, the fibers are aligned almost parallel.
Roving - carded fibers that are combined into long skinny rope like masses of fibery goodness, a great first fiber.
Batts- these are usually processed on a drum carder and are usually thin sheets of carded fibers. To use them, just peel off a small section and go...