Spinning is a wonderfully relaxing craft that produces yarn that you can’t buy in your everyday yarn shop. Your own handmade yarn can be used in a myriad of other projects for a one-of-a-kind finished product. Spinning isn’t hard, but it is one of those crafts that takes a little practice to get started.
How to Spin Yarn Without a Spinning Wheel
Always thought you'd like to learn how to spin, but didn't want to spend the money on an expensive spinning wheel? Try learning on a spindle first.
The easiest way to find out if spinning is for you is to use a hand spindle. Spindles come in all sizes and shapes. They are inexpensive enough to try or you can even make them. There are drop spindles, support spindles, lap spindles and kick spindles to name a few. I recommend lap spindles and drop spindles to start. I first learned on a lap spindle and find it the easiest to manage because it rests on the floor and can’t fall. Technically, this makes it a support spindle as well since it is supported, but I put it in a class of its own.
About Drop Spindles
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Making Yarn by Hand
To learn how to draft, take a strip of combed fleece or roving held between both hands. Then they gently pull the roving apart to make it as long as you can without breaking it. This is actually pre-drafting but the feel is the same.
Then lay the roving across your thigh. Twist the wool by sliding the other hand down over the fleece. It will twist and make a yarn. This was the technique used in earlier times for making cordage.
The Magic Triangle
The secret to smooth spinning is the pinch and the magic triangle. The pinch holds the yarn at the point between what is spun and the rest of the fiber. If the twist is allowed to run up the fiber, you’d soon have a big, thick rope and you no longer would be able to draft.
The magic triangle is the part between the pinch and the rest of the fiber. This is where you draft and where you put most of your attention because how thick or thin you pull this determines how thick or fine your yarn is.
The Lap Spindle
I asked one spinner how she learned to spin. She said that she learned in Ireland. An old spinner there handed her a smooth stick and taught her to spin on it. The lap spindle I use is similar, but with a weight, or whorl, to keep it spinning. It’s a variation of what is commonly called a Navajo lap spindle. I’ve seen similar spindles in Europe and Scandinavian countries as well.
You will need to start with a leader. Take a length of yarn and tie it on to the spindle near the whorl. Wind it a bit up the shaft and tie or twist it to the roving. Then you’re ready to spin.
And We're Spinning
Traditionally, the spindle is leaned against your right thigh and rolled with the right hand toward your body. The wool is held in the left hand and drawn out or drafted to produce a yarn of the desired thickness. I find it more natural to put the spindle on my left and spin it away from me. I’m slightly ambidextrous and sometimes I do things backwards. As long as the spindle is spinning clockwise, it really doesn’t matter.
At first, stop spinning to draft. As you become more comfortable with the motions, you can do both simultaneously. I’m including a wonderful YouTube video of Clara Sherman demonstrating spinning on her spindle. She does some tugging that I was never taught to do. And she doesn't use a leader either. That’s the amazing thing about this craft. There are always things to learn.
Navajo Weaver Clara Sherman
Using a Drop Spindle
A drop spindle can have the whorl either near the top of the shaft or near the bottom of the point. They are called a high whorl and low whorl respectively.The have very subtle differences but we don't need to worry about them here.
To use a drop spindle, twist the shaft so that it spins clockwise. You can "park" the spindle under your arm (or between your knees if you're sitting) and draft. As you get comfortable with the motions, you will be able to suspend the spindle from the yarn and draft as you feed the yarn down. When it gets too low to be practical, wind the yarn around the spindle in a cone shape. When you run out of roving, spread the fibers at the end of your yarn. Lay the tip of the new roving piece over the fibers, fold it over and spin that spot rather tightly. Now you’re back in business.
How to Use a Drop Spindle
Plying and Washing
When you're done, you will have a cone of "single" yarn. Wind your yarn off the spindle in a ball. You can use it as is, although it will create strange angles if you try to knit with it. That's a whole other article in itself. Most spinners will ply two singles together to make two ply yarn. Plying is spinning two singles in the opposite direction. That relaxes the yarn so that it won't have extra twist when you use it.
Gently washing the yarn and hanging it with a weight (about the weight of an iron) will set the twist, that is stretching it slightly so that it behaves. Then it's ready to use. Your very own yarn.
All photos by Lana Pettey