First Spinning!

I might have a few more posts in my Cameroon journal series, but I think I’m going to be shifting gears for a week or so to posts about making stuff. To begin with: making yarn!

A couple of weeks ago Beth and I just each got an ounce or two of hand painted roving at the farmer’s market in Portsmouth, NH. Roving is wool that has been cleaned and smoothed and  is ready to be spun into yarn. If it has been hand painted, it looks like this:

One Ounce of Hand Painted Roving

One Ounce of Hand Painted Roving

One way to make yarn is using a spinning wheel, like you see in fairy tale illustrations. But a far older method is to use a device called a drop spindle. This is just a stick with a ball or disk on it, and a hook at one end.  We built our own drop spindles out of dowelrods, 2” wooden toy cartwheels, and 1/2” brass cup hooks. (Mine also involves some surgical tape because my dowel split a bit when I was screwing in the cup hook).

Home made drop spindle

Recent archaeological evidence has suggested that humans may have been spinning using simple tools like these as long as 30,000 years ago! To use this device, you basically tie on a teased-out bit of roving, spin the spindle like a top, and let the twist come into a little bit of the roving at a time, as you tease out more and more fiber. Periodically you have to stop and wind the newly formed yarn onto your stick, because—earning it’s name—the drop spindle reaches the floor when you’ve created about two meters of yarn.

The Spinner, William Adolphe Bouguereau, oil on canvas, 1873

Beth caught on to the technique a bit faster than I did, so at the end of our first spinning evening. She had some nice, fairly uniform, possibly-thin-enough yarn on her spindle:

spindle in action: Beth demonstrates her technique

I, however, had become the proud creator several yards of coiled purple muppet dredlock:

"yarn"

My muppet dreadlock...er..."yarn."

But we took the spindles with us to the laundromat the following week, and I finally got the hang of it. While we were doing laundry, I  produced some purplish single-ply yarn comparable to Beth’sfirst blue/green stuff, which she had already plied and set.

“Plying?” you may ask. Well, most yarn is actually made up of several strands that have been twisted together. The strands we made above are called “singles,” and they are held together by their twist. If the individual wool fibers weren’t twisted they’d just slide past each other and the yarn would fall apart when you pulled on it.

So this twist is very useful, but if you’ve ever twisted up a yo-yo string, or kite string or rubber band, you know that highly twisted things like to kink up and coil around themselves. Because of this, a single ply yarn, or “single,” is sort of hard to work with. The yarn may kink when you’re trying to knit it or weave it. This problem of kinking can be solved by taking two singles that twist to the right, and twisting them around each other to the left. The result is yarn that is strong, but doesn’t kink:

Plied yarn still on the spindle

Finally, I unwound this plied yarn off the spindle and coiled it around a chair back to make a skein. This is only about 15 meters of yarn, but I’m pretty happy with it for my first attempt, (i.e. first attempt after the muppet dreadlock incident).

the finished skein

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4 Comments on “First Spinning!”

  1. Allison Says:

    I want a spinning wheel! Ever used one of those?

  2. bpatricksullivan Says:

    Yes, as of last weekend I have used a wheel (or seven). The wheel will be the subject of an upcoming post…

  3. Melissa Says:

    Looks waaaay cool! I really want to learn to spin yarn too. Perhaps I’ll make a drop spindle too!


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