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The Craft of Spinning

The Craft of Spinning courtesy of www.walkaboutcrafts.comIntroduction to Spinning

Immortalised in fairy tales, and for centuries a household craft, spinning is still practised in nearly every country in the world. From human hair, to rabbits’ fur and plant fibres, a huge range of natural fibres are spun into yarns to be woven into fabrics.

Origins of Spinning

Centuries before Western man had discovered the advantage of turning sheep's coats into more manageable strands, the Egyptians were spinning fibres into yarn and weaving yarn into fabric such as linen for clothes.  


For many hundreds of years before the Industrial Revolution, people in Britain spun at home using a spindle, and later a spinning wheel. Often they would then weave their own yarns as well as make cloth for rugs, bedding and sacks.

However, with the introduction of factory production the need to spin and weave as part of the weeks housework disappeared.

Today spinning and weaving are still closely connected. Many weavers like to spin their own yarn, to make sure their yarns match the requirements of the fabric they wish to weave.


Basic techniques of Spinning


A wide and varied assortment of natural fibres derived from animals and plants can be spun into yarns. The most commonly used animal fibres are sheep’s wool and silk spun by silkworms. Camel hair is renowned for making soft and warm coats, dressing gowns and blankets. Goat yarn, especially cashmere, makes the most luxurious jumpers. Even yak and human hair can be spun.  

Flax which is used to make linen, one of the strongest and longest lasting cloths, is more difficult to prepare but is still a popular choice with spinners today. Hemp, cotton and ramie (pure white and similar to linen) fibres are spun and woven into fine fabrics. The coarser jute is spun extensively for fabrics used in upholstery and carpets.  


Spinners usually start to learn the craft by spinning wool into yarn. Once mastered, this technique is then applied to other fibres.

There are some 30 – 40 different breeds of sheep in Britain alone and the wools can be classified into three categories:

1.       Mountain and hill breeds

2.       Longwools and lustrous breeds

3.       Shortwool or down breeds

Within these groups the quality of the fleece will vary depending on the area of the body it comes from.  


The finest part of the fleece comes from the shoulder and the coarsest is found on the back legs.

In the past a wool sorter would separate the different qualities to make a bland of comparable quality. This was regarded as an extremely skilled job, and required a seven year apprenticeship.  


Once you have chosen the quality of wool to be used, you will know which method of spinning to employ.

The woollen method is used for shorter, bouncy fibres for a very warm and resilient yarn, while the worsted method is applied to longer, silky, lustrous fibres and produces a sleek, cool yarn.

The essential natural oils found in the fleece should not be washed out before spinning, unless the fleece is to be dyed. If it is washed, a lot of oil emulsion will need to be added to the fibres before spining.

Even if the fleece has not been washed some emulsion is still needed. This lubricates the fibres so they will slide past each other easily, and so reducing the likelihood of the fibres breaking.  


Preparing the fibre for the spinning wheel begins with teasing and carding the wool. The locks of wool are gently worked apart by hand and then out on one side of a carder. The carders look like two dog brushes, with wire bristles protruding through thick material or leather. Enough wool should be laid on one carder to just cover the bristles. The other carder is brushed repeatedly against it.

This process removes any lumps and ensures that the fibres are evenly spread and lying parallel to each other in a fluffy heap. The fibres are then rolled off the carder into a sausage like roll called a rolag.


Using a spinning wheel


There are two important factors to control and care when spinning. These are the movement of the wheel, and the amount of twist put in the fibres before they are fed into the gathering mechanism.

The wheel provides the drive to the flier and bobbin, and is controlled by a treadle. This needs to be peddled with a regular rhythm to maintain the wheel turning at a constant speed. It is a good idea to practise this without feeding in any fibres, just to get used to it.  


Thread a piece of spun yarn through the upright arm by the flier and attach the thread to the bobbin. Start the wheel with one hand and treadle as smoothly as possible before starting the spin.

Draw out some new fibres from a rolag and overlap them with the spun yarn. Twist must be added to the fibres by the spinner before they pass through the arm. This is done in four stages.

About 10 inches of fibre is pulled out between the wheel and left hand, where thumb and forefinger pinch the fibre firmly. As the wheel spins and drives the flier round, this length of fibre becomes tightly twisted.

Between the left and right hand, a further length of fibre (about a yard) is pulled out from the rolag.

The left hand is then released and the built up twist travels up the fibre, which is then fed on to the bobbin. All this action takes place in a matter of seconds.

The twist adds strength to the yarn and determines how firm the yarn is. The twist draws the fibres together so the more twist you add, the less fluffy the yarn will be. To add more twist, simply slow the wheel down. If the yarn does not come out loose, feed it through again.  


Worsted spinning – This method is similar to the basic woollen technique, but involves putting more twist into the fibres.

The long fibres used for worsted spinning are separated from the short by passing the wool through a lethal looking comb.

As with woollen spinning, twist is gathered between the wheel and the left hand. But instead of being released up to the right hand, the fibres are fed immediately onto the bobbin, retaining the tight twist.

Only a short amount of fibre is held between the two hands to allow more control. A strong grip is needed in both left and right hands to maintain tension and prevent the twist going beyond the left hand.  


Creativity enters the craft with the design of the yarns. It is a highly skilled business, demanding an understanding of colour, texture, and the nature of the different fibres.

Here you can use different twists and tensions with several different fibres. The yarn may pass through the wheel three or four times, to gain the right blend of colours. The texture is determined by the base fibres, twist and number of threads. Single threads of yarn can be spun together, and nearly all worsted yarns are treated this way. This technique is known as plying and can involve the intertwining of several threads. The finer two ply (two threads combined) gives a fine textural effect, whereas three ply is bulkier and less distinct in texture.  


The direction of the twist alters the texture too. Feeding the fibres in anticlockwise produces what is known as a ‘S’ twist, while a clockwise twist is called a ‘Z’ twist. Plying an ‘S’ with a ‘Z’ twist yarn produces a particular effect. When it comes to weaving, putting ‘S’ and ‘Z’ twist yarns alternately gives an ultra subtle shading effect.


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