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It’s Tour de Fleece, Day 5! How’s your spinning going?

My mom called me up the other day and asked me if I would do a spinning demonstration for her knitting class. I thought she was joking, because I’m a complete n00b when it comes to making yarn and certainly not qualified to teach anyone the best way to get started. Mom reassured me that they weren’t looking for a pro, however, just someone who could fulfill an elderly class member’s wish to see how spinning works, and to see how what you learn on a spindle prepares you to work with a wheel.

I'm exaggerating the hand motions, but you can see that I let the twist run all the way to my back hand when spinning woolen.

I’m exaggerating the hand motions, but you can see that I let the twist run all the way to my back hand when spinning woolen.

I had said that spindle spinning is a good training ground to my mother, partially because I was defending my use of a spindle over the very expensive wheel she and my husband got me for Christmas. I had a sense that this was true, but I hadn’t really thought about why–the bigger whys of my wheel-avoidance being (1) spindles are easier to travel with and (2) I’m still a little scared of messing up my roving with the wheel.

You make mistakes a lot faster with a wheel than a spindle.

As I thought about how I would explain the relationship of spindle to wheel, I decided I needed to pull out the bump of blue roving I found at the Common Ground Fair last year. I’ve been saving it as my “learn to ply on the wheel” project. I also recently had a conversation with a spinner at the Fiber Frolic about the difference between woolen and worsted spinning. Not having tried both, I wasn’t quite sure what my approach was. I decided to try to do the other with this roving, just as a learning experiment, and I’m glad I did: the decision answered my other question.

To figure out how to spin woolen vs. worsted, you have to understand the concept of the drafting triangle. If you’re spinning woolen, you let go of the vertex of the triangle and let the twist run up into the base and stopping it at your back hand. If you’re spinning worsted, you slide your fingers from the vertex to the base of the drafting triangle, never letting the twist run past your forward hand (refer to photos).

What I realized, as I was trying to get comfortable with the motions of worsted spinning, is that it requires control of the drafting triangle that I didn’t have a year ago. I was able to learn this control using the park and draft method with a drop spindle. At some point, without even noticing I didn’t need the safety of parking anymore, I moved to letting the spindle hang free while I drafted, which is much more similar to working with a wheel.

You can sort of do a park and draft on the wheel, but it’s much clumsier, because if you’ve got the tension on the wheel set to pull in the yarn while you’re spinning, you get almost immediate backspin when you stop the wheel. It’s not a lot of backspin, but it’s enough to cause problems. So if you want to do park and draft on the wheel, you either have to constantly mess with the tension, or you have to hand wind the yarn onto the bobbin. These aren’t impossibly hard things to do, but working with a spindle lets you take backspin and tension out of the equation long enough to let you master your drafting control.

While spinning worsted, the twist is strictly out of the drafting triangle and fiber is fed more carefully through my front hand.

While spinning worsted, the twist is strictly out of the drafting triangle and fiber is fed more carefully through my front hand.

The first yarn I spun on the wheel is a royal mess of broken ends, slubs, and spider-thin spots, and it was tough going. When I spun it, I hadn’t worked my way free of parking my spindle to draft. I put the wheel aside for a few months to focus on the spindle and by the time I finished the lot of fiber I’d been working on, I had graduated from parking. When I joined my roving to my leader on the wheel, I found myself humming along easily within seconds, no false starts or broken ends and understanding about the important of drafting dawned.

So…long story short: spinning is as much about drafting as it is about twist, and a spindle is, among other things, a less-complicated tool for building up your skill with drafting.

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