By Angela Hammer – I’ve always liked making things with my hands. I learned how to crochet years ago, so spinning became the next logical step for me to take. Why buy yarn when you can make it yourself? I found a booklet for the Michigan Fiber Festival which described several classes. I paid my money, attended spinning for beginners class, and I was hooked. I knew I had to get my hands on a drop spindle.
The only problem was that I was a college student with no extra cash, and couldn’t afford a $300 – $400 spinning wheel. So I put my dreams away for about a year. The following summer I met a lady who ran a spinning shop. About $20 later, I owned a drop spindle and some fiber. Now I was able to spin to my heart’s content. Since that time I have become a member of the Michigan Fiber Festival and work with a group of younger volunteers that coordinates and leads the children’s activities at the Festival.
By all means, I am not the final authority on spinning. I’m still learning new things every day, just like anyone who first approaches spinning for beginners. This article is an effort to teach the basics as a way of encouraging further study into the world of fiber arts.
We need to take a brief look at fiber before we tackle the basics of spinning for beginners. Fiber comes from many different sources. For spinning, we often think of sheep’s wool. Other fiber sources include alpaca, llama, cotton, and even dog. For now, we will just look at sheep’s wool.
Wool can be purchased in two basic forms: unprocessed and processed. The fleece that is sheared from a sheep is unprocessed wool. Unprocessed basically means in its raw form. There are three types of processed wools: raving, batts, and top. Roving, sometimes called a sliver, is a long continuous strand of carded wool. Batts are thick rectangles made of layers of carded wool. Top is like roving but the short and broken fibers have been removed leaving the long fibers lying parallel to each other. When giving tips on spinning for beginners, I recommend starting with roving.
Now that we have talked about the forms of wool, we need to move onto the types of wool. Forget the common misconception that all wool is scratchy because it isn’t. Some breeds such as Lincoln, Cotswold, and Suffolk sheep do produce coarse fibers but the fleeces from Merino, Rambouillet, and Shetland are soft. A medium wool, such as Targhee, Jacob, Corriedale, and Dorset, is ideal for spinning for beginners. At the end of this spinning for beginners’ article are some resources that have wool for sale and some resources that will process your fiber into roving for you to use.
How to Make a Drop Spindle
The following directions are for two types of drop spindles: top whorl and bottom whorl. They are not beautiful, but they are practical. Here’s a tip: Don’t invest a lot of money until you are sure this is the thing for you. The one you make is up to you.
Drop Spindle Materials
1” wooden toy wheel
Sharpen one end of the dowel into a blunt point. Sand it smooth. Sand and slightly round the other end of the dowel.
Put the sharp end of the dowel through the hole in the wheel, leaving about two inches of dowel below the wheel. Glue into place and let dry.
This is a completed bottom whorl spindle. (Fig. 1)
The following instructions are for making a top whorl spindle:
Sharpen one end of the 12” dowel. Don’t sharpen to a point. Sand it for a smooth, rounded, blunt end. Sand and slightly round the edges to the flat end.
Put the flat end of the dowel through the hole in the wheel, leaving about one inch of dowel above the wheel. Glue into place and let dry.
After the glue has sufficiently dried, using a drill or nail, make a pilot hole in the middle of the flat end of the dowel. This is to prevent the wood from splitting when the cup hook is put in. Take the small cup hook and screw it into place.
If you want to, you can sand the part of the dowel above the whorl so it tapers to the edges of the cup hook.
This is a completed top whorl spindle. (Fig. 2)
Important Construction Tips
The most important things to consider when making or buying a drop spindle are balance and weight. Always check for these when buying or making spindles.
When checking for balance, ask yourself these questions: Does the spindle wobble a lot? Does it spin well or is it sluggish? Does it spin freely? Weight is the other important element to look for in a drop spindle. Heavy spindles (over four ounces) work best to create thick, bulky yarn while light weight spindles (less than one ounce) work best to create thin, fine yarns. A medium weight spindle (around two ounces) is a good all-purpose spindle, enabling you to create a full spectrum of yarn from fine, lace-weight to thick, bulky-weight.
Spinning for beginners tip: The most important thing to remember when choosing a drop spindle is – do you like it?
Spinning for Beginners: How to Spin
Before one actually begins putting twist into the fiber, drafting should be practiced. Drafting is the process of pulling the fibers of the fiber supply out to get them ready to be twisted. To learn this process, we will use the “inch-worm technique.” To do this, remember these three words: pinch, pull and release. These words, in a nutshell, are the basic drafting process.
The following directions are written specifying certain hands to be used. You can interchange the directions so the right hand means left and left hand means right if you find it easier to do it that way.
To get started, throw the roving over your shoulder so it lies on your shoulder with one end in your hand and the other behind your back.
Take the end of roving that is in your hands and “pinch” the end of it with your right hand. (Fig. 4)
After you have drafted, keep your left hand holding the fiber. Now with your right hand “release” the fibers. You have just completed the “inch-worm technique.” (Figure. 5)
To keep drafting, continue to “pinch” the fiber at the point of twist, “pull: back with the opposite hand, drafting the fibers to the thickness desired; and “release” the yarn with the first hand, allowing the twist to enter the drafted fibers.
Practice this technique a couple of times until you are comfortable with it. Now it’s time to put it into real practice.
To Spin With a Bottom Whorl Spindle
Take a two-foot piece of yarn and tie it around the shaft above the whorl. This is called your leader. Turn the spindle clockwise a couple of times to wind the leader around the base of the shaft.
Continue turning the spindle but barber pole the yarn up the shaft towards the top. Secure the yarn about one inch from the top of the shaft with a half hitch. (Fig. 6 & Fig. 7)
The easiest way to attach the leader and the fiber together is to knot them.
To begin the twist, hold on to the knot that was just made with your let hand. Grasp the shaft towards the top with the right hand and twist it clockwise. Be sure to give it a good twist.
Once there is a good amount of twist in the yarn, set the spindle down on a table or chair or the ground. This will stop the spindle from spinning the opposite direction.
Now begin to “pinch, pull, release.” Pinch the knot with your right hand, pull back on the fibers with your left hand, and release with the right hand. (Figure. 3, 4, & 5)
You should see the twist enter the drafted fibers. You have just made yarn. Congratulations!
Continue the “pinch, pull, release” process until you notice that the yarn isn’t twisting very well during the “release” part of the process.
Pinch the yarn at this point with the left hand and twist the spindle clockwise with the right hand.
Repeat steps 6 to 10 as often as needed.
You have probably noticed that your arms are only so long and they haven’t grown any longer. Now you need to wind the yarn you have made onto the spindle. Unhook the half hitch and unwind the barber pole effect. Turning the spindle clockwise, wind the yarn onto the shaft creating a cone (wide bottom, small top). Leave enough yarn to barber pole up the shaft and make a half hitch at the top with at least three inches to spare.
Continue with steps 6 through 12 until the spindle is full or you run out of fiber.
(I suggest the process of putting a lot of twist into the yarn and setting down the spindle for a good reason When you are just starting to spin it takes enough concentration to remember “pinch, pull release” without having to figure out how to add “twist” to the equation. When you feel that you are ready, go ahead and add “twist” and don’t worry about setting the spindle down unless it’s needed.)
Spinning With a Top Whorl Spindle
Many of the processes are similar with a top whorl as with a bottom whorl, while some others require a slightly different explanation. In the beginning, spinning with this type of spindle works better sitting down.
Tie a two-foot piece of yarn onto the shaft under the whorl. This is your leader.
Repeat step 2 in the Bottom Whorl instructions. (Hereafter referred to as BW)
Bring the leader yarn up over the edge of the whorl and up to the hook. Pull the yarn through the hook so that when the spindle is turned in a clockwise direction the yarn stays caught in the hook and doesn’t come undone.
Repeat step 4 in BW.
To begin the twist hold the know in the left hand and roll the shaft of the spindle with the right hand rapidly up the right leg from knee to upper thigh and let it dangle in front of you until the spindle stops spinning.
Repeat step 6 in BW.
Repeat step 7 in BW.
Repeat step 8 in BW.
Repeat step 9 in BW.
Pinch the yarn at the point of twist with the let hand and roll the shaft of the spindle rapidly up the right leg from knee to upper thigh, letting it dangle until the spindle stops spinning.*
Repeat steps 6 through 10 as often as needed.
When you run out of arm length, it’s time to wind on the yarn. Unhook the yarn from the hook and rotate the spindle in a clockwise direction winding the yarn as the shaft rotates. Wind the yarn on the shaft in a cone form (wide at the top, small at the bottom). Leave enough length to wrap the yarn up over the whorl and through the hook.
Continue steps 6 through 12 until the spindle is full or you run out of fiber.
Joining More Fibers
If you have a break in the yarn or you need to add new fiber, the process is basically the same for both. It works best to set the spindle down so the spindle doesn’t untwist.
Be sure the fiber you are adding to doesn’t have any twist in it. If it does have twist, you need to tease the end of the fiber open for about two inches of length.
Take the new fiber that is being added and overlap the new and the old. (Fig. 8) Hold the end of the new fiber and the point of twist of the old fiber in the right hand. Pull back on the fibers with the left hand. This blends the fibers together.
Three Truths of Spinning for Beginners
After you have been spinning a little while, the “Three truths of spinning for beginners” should be very evident.
- If you don’t twist the drafted fibers enough, your yarn will drift apart and break.
- If you twist the drafted fibers too much, the twist will travel into the fiber supply, engulfing the whole mass and preventing further drafting.
- The fewer number of fibers you draft, and thus the smaller the diameter of the yarn, the more twist you will need to hold it together.
Plying The Yarn
The first yarn that you have spun is called a single because it is a single ply. Most of the yarn you buy in the stores are three-ply or four-ply, meaning that these are three or four singles plied together into its present yarn form. You, too, can ply your singles into a plied yarn. Please note that you do not have to ply the yarn to use it. If you choose to ply, this section will help you do so.
Most hand spinners create two-ply yarns. To do this you need to spin two spindles full of yarn. When you get ready to take the cones of yarn off the spindles, you can do it at least tow different ways. One way is to slide the cones off onto knitting needles. Using a shoebox, poke holes in the sides and put the knitting needles through the holes with the cones of singles inside the shoebox. This is a simple form of a “Lazy Kate.” (Fig. 9) The other way is to wind each spindle of singles off into balls. When you get ready to ply, put each ball of yarn into a jar or bowl. The balls will roll all over the place and get tangled if you don’t try to confine them.
Now we are ready to ply. Prepare the drop spindle the same as before but instead of fiber you will have to strands of yarn to attach to the leader. Knot as before. The important thing to remember is that the spindle, when plying, will spin in the opposite direction. If you spun the singles clockwise, when plied they must be plied counterclockwise. With the bottom whorl spindle twist it counterclockwise with your fingers. Top whorl spindles are rolled down the outside of the right leg form upper thigh to knew to get a counterclockwise spin.” Give the spindle a good twist and begin pinching, pulling, and releasing. You will notice that you can pull back further when plying. Continue plying and winding onto the spindle until the spindle fills or you run out of yarn.
Finishing The Yarn
Whether you have created a single or a plied yarn, finishing the yarn is still necessary.
Winding off is when you take the yarn off the spindle to get it ready to set the twist. You can use your leg to wind the yarn off the spindle. Bend your leg and wrap the yarn from knee to foot and back to knee again. Do this until the spindle is empty. Then take four pieces of contrasting yarn and tie them loosely in four different places around the yarn. Tie them with a figure-8 tie like the figures shown. (Fig. 10)
To set the twist, take the skein of yarn and put it into warm water. You can do this in a five-gallon bucket, sink, or wash basin. Always run the water into the container first and then set the skein gently into the water. Running the water onto the skein can cause it to felt and if you want to use the yarn to knit or crochet, you don’t want it to do this.
Place the skein on top of the water and gently push it into the water. Let it soak for about 10 minutes. Take it out of the water and gently squeeze the water out. Do not wring the skein. Then put the skein inside a towel and squeeze some more water out. The skein will need to be hung up to air dry completely. Hang the skein over the doorknob, a drying rack, or a shady part of an outdoor clothesline.
When the yarn is completely dry, twist it into a skein for storage. Grab an end of this big hank of yarn with each hand and twist the skein until it is firm. (Fig. 11) Fold it in the middle and watch the skein twist back on itself. (Fig. 12) Take one end and tuck it through the loop on the other end. (Fig. 13) The skein is ready for storage. (Fig. 14)
To Use The Skein
To use the yarn in the skein, unhook the loops and let the twist out of the skein. Find the ends of the yarn and untie them. Using either end, wind the yarn into a ball, and you are ready to go.
A Few Parting Words
By learning the basics of spinning for beginners, you have embarked on a unique journey. It is a journey I hope you will enjoy. The first yarn you create will be bumpy with thick and thin spots. But it will be beautiful because you made it. Practice does make perfect and with time the yarn you create will be almost flawless. So take a deep breath and start the journey into the world of spinning. I’m so glad you can join in this exciting journey.
* A top whorl spindle can be rolled on either leg but in different directions. Use Figure 15 to help you figure out which direction to roll the spindle depending on which let you choose.
Originally published in Countryside May / June 2001 and regularly vetted for accuracy.