When Spinning Hits a Few Bumps in the Road

A little while ago I wrote about learning to spin. My friend and colleague Elizabeth Prose kindly gave up a Saturday morning to teach me the basics of spinning and using a wheel, and after just an hour I was hooked. Dudes, I was making yarn! So excited was I that I stopped by a fiber store on the way home, and things went downhill from there.

Armed with an entire 120 minutes of newfound expertise, I bought some beach ball–sized lumps of wool. Now, I’ve been doing this yarn stuff for a while, so I like to think that I know my way around when it comes to understanding fiber and how it behaves. Maybe I was in some fugue state, or maybe I just don’t know as much as I think because what happened next was rather unpleasant.

Jacob have I loved, but not this time.

Jacob have I loved, but not this time.

I got home and grabbed my first fiber choice: a nice brown Jacob. I have a weakness for Jacob sheep, as they are awfully cute. Spotted black and white, they are like wooly stuffed toys with sorta freaky horns. Jacob wool tends to have long fibers and can be slightly coarse, which is exactly what I was looking for. Long fibers require less twist than short ones, and coarser wool fibers are toothy and like to stick together, making for easier spinning. I did note that my giant fiber ball seemed particularly fluffy, but I didn’t think much about that. I started my wheel, picked up my fiber, and nothing happened. I attached it to the leader string again while treadling: the wool just sat there in my lap like a dead animal. I tried again, and a big chunk pulled off and immediately fell apart. The next attempt yielded something kinkier than 50 Shades of Gray, and just as poorly done. And so on. For the next two hours I produced yarn that either fell apart immediately or was dense enough to have its own field of gravity. I begged Elizabeth to come over and show me what I was doing wrong.

Well this didn’t go as planned.

Well this didn’t go as planned.

Elizabeth showed up and watched me spin, which felt like being a contestant on Hell’s Kitchen, minus the swearing and violence. Turns out I wasn’t doing anything wrong per se (although she did show me a better way of holding the fiber), but I didn’t really understand fiber or wheels as well as I thought.

Wool can be combed or carded. Combing aligns the wool fibers all in the same direction; carding jumbles the fibers into a fluffy and lofty prep where the fibers go every which way and hold tons of tiny air pockets. The Jacob I purchased was a carded prep, but so was the Coopworth I spun at Elizabeth’s house. Why was one well behaved and the other not?
Firstly, the Coopworth had been in a stash bag and had compacted into a wool brick over the years. It needed predrafting to loosen up the fibers so they would spin properly. The Jacob was new and fluffy, but I assumed ALL roving needs predrafting, so I tugged and pulled and pretty much turned it into lint before trying to spin with it. Elizabeth pointed this out in a very kindly way, but it still makes me cringe a bit.

Secondly, my wheel tension was off, so my fiber just sat there or was ripped out of my hands when I treadled. It turns out that the first wheel I used had double drive tension, while the second had Scotch tension. I won’t go into mechanics too much here, but double drive tension on that particular wheel is adjusted with 1 knob, while the more nuanced (fiddlier) Scotch tension has 2, and I didn’t realize that. It was like I had just barely learned how to drive an automatic and then tried to drive a manual transmission through the mountains; like the metaphorical car, my yarn fell apart because I didn’t properly understand the mechanics.

If you want to discover the euphoria of spinning but avoid my awkward mistakes, I suggest you check out Kate Larson’s Beginning Spinning on a Wheel. Not only does she show you the basics of wheel mechanics and how wheels differ so you don’t make stupid tension mistakes, she also talks about how fibers and fiber preps differ, and what to consider before spinning the stuff. I’ll be watching it before I try spinning again, and will hopefully have a better result to share with you.

Beginning Spinning on a Wheel is now available as an on-demand course you can watch at your own pace, anywhere, any time, on any device.

Happy watching!

Want to learn more? Check out these resources: