Knitty: little purls of wisdom
Schacht Spindle Company

Finishing Your Yarn

You’ve done it; you’ve filled a bobbin or spindle with your handspun yarn! But to paraphrase Yogi Berra: it ain’t finished till it’s finished. Like a knitted or newly sewn garment that isn’t done until it has been washed and blocked, newly spun yarn needs to be washed or steamed to set the twist. Some spinners may like to use freshly spun yarn as is (perhaps those who like to work with “energized” yarns full of active twist or those planning to weave with their handspun and finish it as cloth), but most knitters will find that yarns behave better and more predictably if we take a few more steps before using our handpsun. Woolen yarns, especially down breeds, can change rather dramatically after finishing—plumping up and changing gauge from their unwashed counterparts.

I became an avid knitter after learning to spin, and I have become so accustomed to washing my yarn that I often wash commercial yarns before knitting with them, especially more artisanal yarns. Jacqueline Fee, author of The Sweater Workshop, offers the rule of thumb: “weavers wash last, knitters wash first, and should no matter the yarn.” Of course, washing your swatch again before embarking on your project is the best insurance against sneaky yarn changes.

Winding a Skein
Before you can wash or steam your yarn, you need to make a skein. Spinners with a full array of equipment can put a full bobbin on a lazy kate and wind a skein with a niddy-noddy or reel, but it’s easy enough to those who are just starting out to improvise. You can use a shoebox to hold your spindle or bobbin while you wind off your yarn between your hand and elbow or onto your swift.

Those who spin often will find a niddy-noddy or reel to be a worthwhile investment. It’s easier to show someone how to use a niddy-noddy than it is to explain it.

Keep your tension even (don’t pull too hard) and keep moving in one direction.

Niddy-noddies allow you to wind a skein longer than what you can fit on your arm, and reels [see below] are even more efficient because they stand up on their own and enable you to wind yarn more quickly. Niddy-noddies and reels often wind skeins into two-yard or one-and-a-half-yard skeins (you can take some scrap yarn and wind it one time around and then measure it if you are unsure what size skein your niddy-noddy or reel produces). Then all you need to do is count the number of strands on one side and multiply it by the skein length and you will know approximately how many yards you have.

If you have used an alternative (like your arm), you’ll need to measure the length of one full wrap to estimate your yardage. Every once in a while I get lucky, and the last bit of yarn reaches the beginning of the skein as I am winding it, but most of the time, I need to bridge the gap with a bit of scrap yarn.
Don’t tell Alden Amos, though; this would make him shudder. He recommends going back a round until the ends of handspun meet so that you don’t misjudge your yardage. I hate to waste even a few inches of handspun, but that’s just me.

Once you’ve wound all the yarn from your spindle or bobbin, you’ll need to secure the skein with a figure-eight tie in three to five places to prevent it from becoming tangled as you wash or dye it (go with 5 places if your yarn is very fine or if you will be dyeing it after winding). I like to use white crochet cotton for my ties, which is easy to see when it comes time to cut it off.

Washing or Steaming Your Yarn to Set the Twist
The term “finishing” usually refers to setting the twist on your yarn. You can set the twist by steaming or washing your yarn.

To steam your yarn, hold it with a pair of tongs or a chopstick or leave it on the niddy-noddy and carefully move the yarn through the steam coming out of a teakettle--or use a garment steamer if you have one. Wear an oven mitt and watch your body parts--steam burns! Allow the yarn to dry for a few minutes before using it. Be aware that steaming a yarn on a niddy-noddy is the equivalent of drying it under tension; your gauge may change after the item is washed, so it’s best to wash a swatch first.

Steaming is quick and allows you to begin using your yarn more quickly. It works for all fibers, and if your yarn is already clean (without spinning oils or dust or dirt), it’s a fast way to set the twist.

Although steaming is quick, I usually like to wash my skeins when I’m done spinning so they feel thoroughly clean and ready for knitting. Everybody seems to develop their own routine for washing their woolies, but here’s what I like to do. Wool and other animal fibers can be soaked in warm-to-hot soapy water for at least ten minutes and then rinsed clean. You can use a bit of dish soap, shampoo, no-rinse wool wash, or other mild detergents. Be sure not to agitate or wring so you don’t inadvertently felt the fibers. In spite of clothing-care labels that tell us to use only cold water to wash sweaters, I wash most of my finished skeins in pretty hot water. I like to use hot water to remove any residual oils or excess dye, and I like to preshrink anything that might shrink before I begin knitting; I have never had a problem with felting.

On the other hand, sometimes your yarn may like it rough--you may actually want to full or felt your yarn slightly during the finishing stage. You might want to use this finishing technique with bulky singles, for example, to discourage them from pilling. In that case, check out the helpful directions for fulling your handspun in Amy King’s Spin Control or in Judith MacKenzie’s The Intentional Spinner.

I am especially careful about what I use to wash silk. Silk prefers an acidic environment and dish soap and laundry detergents can be detrimental to its fibers. I’ve used pure castile soap (Dr. Bronner’s), Eucalan and SOAK for washing handspun silk yarns; Michael Cook, an experienced worm shepherd, recommends Orvus paste.

Plant fibers such as linen and cotton are best finished by simmering the skeins in dish detergent in a pot of water on the stove for 40 minutes or more. If you plan to dye cotton yarn, you’ll need to simmer it in a pot of water and detergent to which you’ve added two tablespoons of washing soda (also called soda ash) to remove the natural waxes that will prevent even dye absorption. Because I knit with my linen and cotton yarns, they are plied and I boil them in skein form (tied in several places to prevent tangling); those who are finishing linen or cotton singles for weaving may want to boil them on plastic cores (see Olive and Harry Linder’s classic books, Handspinning Cotton and Handspinning Flax, for more information on making your own boiling bobbins or try Stephanie Gaustad’s wonderful new video, Spinning Cotton).

Remove your clean skein from the rinse water, gently squeeze out any excess water, and lay the skein flat on a towel. Roll the towel up and press out as much remaining moisture as you can. I hang my skeins to dry without tension because I generally knit with my handspun and prefer to retain any natural elasticity. If you want your skeins to dry with a weight, try Maggie Casey’s clever trick of hanging a plant mister on the bottom loop.

Twisting Your Skein
Once your skein is dry, you can twist it into a neat little storage package. Hold the open skein at each end of the loop and twist one side in one direction until the skein twists back on itself. Then tuck one end into the loop on the other end and voila: your skein, now officially finished.

Lee Juvan learned to spin on a walking wheel when she was twelve in a summer workshop at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts. She bought her own wheel in 1990, and she’s been at it since then. Lee is the designer of several patterns published in Knitty, including Shroom and Brighton.

You can see more of her work on Ravelry, including her new line of historically inspired patterns.