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This hand Yarn market Handspinning Swatch out! Steeks

By Shannon Okey

Looking for a new challenge? Bored with commercial yarn? Do you have sheep or other fur-bearing animals around the house? You're a handspinner waiting to happen. Like knitting, it's not nearly as difficult as it appears to the novice, but you can spend years perfecting complicated techniques while conquering exotic fibers, dyes and different types of spindles or wheels along the way.

This article will address the basics as I know them. I started to spin last year, and my experience is based on an Ashford Kiwi wheel with sheep fleece. I will take you through the first project I made [a handspun, handknit pullover] and explain the terminology, equipment, and methods.

The first decision to make was "spindle or wheel?" You can learn to spin very inexpensively using what's called a drop spindle. A wood spindle costs around $20, or you can make your own with an old CD. Interweave Press offers an article about beginning handspindling called Low Tech, High Satisfaction on their site.

Being the impatient sort, I knew a spinning wheel would allow me to meet the ambitious timeline I'd given myself for my first project. There are as many types of wheels as there are spinners, and you're really only constrained by cost. After searching for a used wheel online at The Fiber Equipment and Barter Page, I ended up with an Ashford Kiwi. Ashford is a family-run company in New Zealand, and they have half a million satisfied customers worldwide. The Kiwi is a great beginner's wheel, and I'm really pleased with mine. Schacht and Louet are other well-known wheel manufacturers; ask around if you're thinking of buying your own.

If you like fairytales, you'll love the names of a spinning wheel's components. There are maidens, footmen, Lazy Kates, the mother-of-all and distaffs, among others. Check out The Woolery's article on choosing a wheel for illustrations of these parts.

After you've chosen your wheel or spindle, you'll need fiber. Most beginning spinners choose sheep's wool, because it is the most forgiving of error and easiest to handle. My teacher, Lucy Lee of Mind's Eye Yarns, helped me pick out a fleece from a sheep named Eddie at Rivercroft Farm in Starks, ME. This project became known as The Eddie Sweater for that reason [see right, modelled by my friend Lee]. Lucy recommended a Romney fleece [Romney is one type of sheep, others include Merino, Corriedale, Lincoln and Shetland] because it has a long staple length. Staple length refers to the length of the individual fibers. Longer is better when you are first learning to spin because it is easier to draft without breaking your single every few feet. [Don't worry; explanation to follow].

When you buy a raw fleece, a good farm or supplier will have skirted it, or removed the dirtiest, most matted pieces along the edges. A fleece is quite large [I've made 2 sweaters from Eddie's so far], weighing anywhere from 4 to 10 pounds. Good fleece is expensive, but compared to finished yarn, quite reasonable, not to mention absolutely unique! You can expect to pay at least $5 per pound and up.

Before you get started, you'll need to wash the fleece. Surprise! In addition to their skin's natural lanolin and other oils, sheep sweat. They sweat a lot, actually. And there will be dust and dirt on even the cleanest fleece. Although I've read many articles that suggest using dishwashing soap, I took Lucy's advice and used human shampoo. Those economy bottles of lavender-scented Suave are great!

Like washing a finished wool sweater, you never want to alternate between hot and cold water, or you will be learning to felt instead! In this context, felting is bad. Felting intentionally tangles fibers and that's not what we're trying to do.

Basic fleece-washing rules include:

  • Choose either hot or cold water and stick with it. I'd go with hot. It should be hot enough to be uncomfortable, but not so hot you burn yourself. You also need to maintain the temperature, so be prepared to work quickly.

  • Put in a good amount of shampoo, but not so much you end up rinsing the fleece 10 times. Take out too much of the natural oils and the fleece becomes more difficult to spin.

  • Don't crowd the fleece. I wash it in my bathtub, and one whole fleece was divided into at least 8 sections.

  • When the water is ready, float the fleece on top of the water and push it under gently. Don't agitate the fleece, you'll inadvertently felt it!

  • Lift out sections of fleece with a wooden spoon handle or similar and employ Shannon's Lazy Method of Drying. Let gravity do the work: on your balcony rail or a wooden clothes rack, drape individual segments of fleece you've scooped out [they'll look like long locks of hair] and leave them until dry. A sunny windy day is best. Added bonus: less carding! If there's a little soap left on the wool, that's ok.

Carding is the next step. Carding aligns all the fibers in one direction and fluffs them to make drafting easier. There are different methods and different tools for carding, including combs, hand-cranked/electronic carders and carding paddles. I use paddles. If you've used Shannon's Lazy Method of Drying, you might not need to card much. As the water drips out of the drying locks, it pulls the fibers in one direction and, if you're careful, you can draft straight from a dried section. Otherwise, take a piece of your clean, dry fleece [it must be completely dry — don't forget wool's amazing ability to hold water] and "charge" a paddle by draping pieces of fleece in one direction. You'll then take the other paddle and gently swipe across the fibers, aligning them in one direction. When everything is fluffy and aligned, pull the fiber off and put it aside. Sometimes you'll need to pick apart stubborn individual locks with your fingers. When I first started to card, I had a tendency to over-card. You don't want to beat the fibers into submission, just make them presentable.

Now you have a giant pile of clean, wooly puffballs. It's time to spin! After attaching a leader, or starter piece of yarn, to your bobbin, and pulling it through the orifice, you wrap the edge of a puffball around the leader, pinch it and start to work the treadles with your feet. Most spinners spin clockwise and ply counter-clockwise. As the fiber starts to wrap around the leader, you begin to draft. Drafting is pulling fiber out with your free hand from the puffball so it can twist itself into the yarn that is beginning to wind onto the bobbin. If you're right-handed like me, you'll hold the puffball on your left, guide the forming yarn with your left hand, and pull with your right. Sometimes you really need to give the fiber a good tug -- it's easy to be too tentative at first. What you are making now is called a single.

When you have two bobbins filled with single-ply yarn, you can make a double-ply yarn by putting your bobbins on something called a "Lazy Kate" and attaching the ends to a leader on a new bobbin. Plying makes a more balanced yarn, particularly for beginners who have a tendency to over-twist their singles [me included!]. When plying, you treadle in the reverse direction -- usually counterclockwise. As the two singles wrap together, you pull them forward with your free hand [guiding with your left, pulling with your right for a right-hander] and allow them to wind on to the bobbin.

Niddy-noddy time! When you've made a bobbinful of yarn, this strange implement helps you turn it into familiar-looking skeins. By wrapping the yarn from the bobbin onto the niddy, you create a large loop in a small amount of space, which is then tied in sections and removed by sliding it off one "shoulder" of the niddy.

Stop and beam with pride. It's your first skein!

This isn't Superwash from the yarn store. Before knitting with your new yarn, you should wash it. It can shrink anywhere from 10-25%, and wouldn't that be a terrible surprise the first time you washed whatever you make from it! I stuck with shampoo, but "plain soap" is also recommended [see the The Alden Amos Big Book of Handspinning for recipes and extensive details, but don't use laundry detergent: too many chemicals and brighteners]. Here's the fun part. You've got a dripping skein in your hand and don't feel like standing there all day. Whack it against your shower wall, or go outside [my aunt's birdfeeder got pummeled the day I was there!]. Not only will you forcefully remove some of the water, but Lucy says this also helps set the twist. Hang to dry, and ball as usual.

Something I learned while making the Eddie sweater is that your yarn's gauge will likely change as you continue to spin. Before committing to a project, try to make enough yarn to complete it. I didn't follow this advice, but had excellent beginner's luck. Despite overtwisted yarn that made the top of my sweater start to slant on a bias, it compensated as I continued to knit, and the finished object is just perfect. Using a top-down circular needle pattern helped, too - in this case, Knitting Pure & Simple #9724. Another method is to alternate yarn from different skeins as you go along.

Now knit yourself something beautiful! For more information, check out the open directory guide to handspinning, SpinOff magazine from Interweave Press or my knitting website. I plan to grow and process a dye garden this summer — stay tuned for more adventures!


Shannon Okey is a knitter from Somerville, MA, who first discovered the Zen-like joys of knitting during stockbroker boot camp. Much to the relief of her artistic family, she left the world of finance and added spinning to her repertoire in 2002.

Shannon maintains both knitting and personal websites when she's not chasing her miniature dachshund Anezka around the house.

© 2003 Shannon Okey. Contact Shannon.