The secret to spinning silk

Spinning silk is more like spinning cotton than wool

Sara Lamb is well known for her colorful handspun silk. Her new book, The Practical Spinner's Guide: Silk, will be out soon. We've asked Sara here to share a surprising tip you should find helpful as you start to spin silk.

Sara: Silk. The word itself conjures an image of rich color, shiny surfaces, and supple fabrics. As spinners, working with silk fiber gives us the opportunity to be a part of those images: as the fibers drift through our fingers, and as we imagine the beautiful fabrics we will make.

Spinning silk is not difficult, but you will be more successful if you remember this: spinning silk is more like spinning cotton than it is like spinning wool.

Silk is not wool! The fibers have no scales or crimp like wool. They will not full or felt in the finishing process, as either yarn or fabric. There is no grease or lanolin and no sericin on the surface of the fiber to help hold the fibers together in drafting.

Twist is the only thing holding the fibers in the yarn. Like cotton, the finer the yarn and the more twist you insert per inch, the more stable your silk yarn will be. A loosely twisted yarn may appear more lustrous, but will fuzz and degrade in the process of making up and use. Without twist, the fine fibers will slip against each other and pull out of the yarn, forming fibrils or pilling on the surface of your yarn and eventually your project.

Silk fibers are very fine, from Bombyx (which ranges from 10 to 13 microns in diameter) to Tussah (from 20 to 30 microns). Cotton fibers range from 13 to 20 microns but are much shorter than most silk fibers we spin.

As with spinning cotton, silk fibers will draft out of any mass of fiber in your hands. Hold the fibers very lightly, have your wheel set to a very slight tension, and let the twist help draft the fibers, whether you spin from the end of the top, from the fold, or from a loose mass of fibers like the laps or batts of Muga and Eri silks we see on the market.

Silk spun fine, with a tight twist—used as either singles or plied to any size you wish—will make up into durable and shiny fabrics. The fabrics will wear well, remain lustrous and smooth, and will last for years of use, making the hours you spend spinning and then weaving, knitting, or embroidering your handspun silk well worth the effort.

—Sara Lamb

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