Knitty: little purls of wisdom
Natural Obsessions

Theory and Practice

“Fractal Spinning*” is nothing more than a fancy name for a particular way to divide up your fiber for spinning, in order to show off the colors in a certain sequence in the finished knitted or crocheted project. The name comes from a mathematics term, defined as “a rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is (at least approximately) a reduced-size copy of the whole.” Which is pretty much what you’re doing to your fiber.  This method allows you some degree of control over the subtle striping that your yarn will do later, and can give you lovely, well-balanced colors in the finished piece. Plus, it’s curiously fun.

*Fractal spinning first appeared in the spinning world with the article "The Fractal Stripe" by Janel Laidman in the Summer 2007 issue of
Spin Off magazine.



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Start with some handpainted roving or top that has long, distinct color segments. I’ve experimented with this technique with shorter, more mottled color sections, and frankly, the fractal-ing won’t much matter there. You want the kind that’s in a long strip, and is often sold in a braid. Before you start, lay out your roving and take note of the order of the colors. Most likely, you’ll notice one of several patterns:


1 across Mirror: The colors go A-B-C-B-A-B-C, or "A and C alternate, with B in between each time."


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Repeating: The colors go A-B-C-A-B-C, simply repeating the sequence over and over.


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Non-repeating: The colors go in any ole random order, with no discernible pattern.

If you’ve got mirror-dyed fiber, you don’t really need to worry about the direction you’ll be spinning in, because the striping is going to come out approximately the same way no matter what. If you’ve got repeating or non-repeating fiber, you’ll want to make a note right now of the colors at the ends. If by some misfortune, the ends are the same color, look at the colors next to the end colors. For example’s sake, let’s say one end is red and the other is blue. 

Now, the fractal part. Split your fiber in half lengthwise, and set one half aside. Split the other half lengthwise several more times, until you have a bunch of strips. You can make these as wide or narrow as you want, just make sure they’re not narrower than the yarn you want to spin. I used 4 strips for this yarn.

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See how each part is a “reduced-sized copy of the whole”? Neat, eh? Math!

Next, spin up the unsplit half, making a note of which end you start at (let’s say we started with red). Spin to whatever weight you want, keeping in mind that it will be a two-ply yarn when finished. You can predraft this half, but don’t tear it or split it, spin it as a big chunk.

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See how it has nice big chunks of color?

Now you have a few decisions to make.

Decision One: Do you want to use multiple bobbins, or ply from a center-pull ball? Both work, but plying from a center-pull is a bit less precise (since one half might be slightly bigger than the other and end up plying with itself close to the fold), and you’ll need to keep in mind that the second half of the yarn will end up going in the opposite direction from the way you spun it- so if you want it to stripe red-to-blue, you’ll have to spin it blue-to-red. (We’ll get to that next.) On the other hand, it doesn’t waste yarn, and I’m too lazy to find my other bobbins. If you want to ply from a center pull ball spin all of your fiber onto one bobbin, first the big chunk then the strips, wind the singles into a center pull ball and ply with each end of the ball.

Decision Two: If you’re working with mirror-repeat fiber, you can skip this part. If you’ve got one of the other types, you can choose to spin up the strips of fiber in a few ways, each of which will look a little different when plyed up and in the finished fabric:

  • go the same way as the first half, so if you started with red before, start with red each time you start spinning a new strip.
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  • Go the opposite of the way you went before, so if you started with red, start all the strips with blue
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  • Alternate starting with blue or red ends, which gives you an effect sort of like the mirror-dyed fiber will have naturally.
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The differences are subtle, but each will knit up with a different stripe order.

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From right to left: second half going the same way as the first half,
second half going the opposite way, “mirror” effect.

Note that your final result will probably vary from these pictures, depending on the lengths of your particular color blocks- you’re really only controlling the order of the colors, they’ll still tend to fall where they want. (I had to really shorten the length of each color to fit in a little picture, too.)

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Whichever way you choose, when you spin up this half, you’ll notice that the color sections are much smaller.

Remember that if you’re plying from a center-pull, you’ll want to do the opposite. Ply that baby up, block it, and see what happens!

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The yarn won’t look particularly stripey, but the magic happens when you start knitting it! (The roving shown here was mirror-dyed.) Note that the stripes will be more prominent the smaller the number of stitches- a thin scarf will have nice wide stripes, but a large hat or cowl will have narrower ones.

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The brim of the Mandelbrot hat.

designernamespacer Alex knits, crochets, spins, and otherwise screws around and ignores her wasted psychology degree over at She enjoys cookies and dog-wrangling, but not so much bio-writing.