Photo by Queren King-Orozco
I taught myself to spin when I was about 13 years old, using a spindle I made with a discarded CD and a pencil, and polyester stuffing for the fiber. My yarn was lumpy and bumpy. I learned to knit around the same time, and focused on that for several years, but when my mom gave me a beautiful wooden drop spindle and 8 ounces of sheep’s wool, I took up spinning again. My yarn was still pretty lumpy, and I dropped my spindle so often that my housemates at the time threatened to banish me to the porch until I got the hang of it. A word to the wise: Practice over carpet first. Your spindle — and your household — will thank you.
With about 10 years of experience behind me, I can now spin lace weight yarn while I walk, talk, and read. Spinning is a physical skill that gets easier the more you practice it, so don’t get discouraged if your first results aren’t quite what you want; your hands need time to learn what they’re doing.
Tools of the Trade
Before you spring for a spinning wheel — which can easily cost several hundred dollars — look for a drop spindle (or “suspended spindle”). They’re generally inexpensive (you can find a good-quality spindle for about $10), portable, and sturdy. The most common type of spindle you’ll encounter has a whorl, which is a weighted disk, with a shaft running through the center. The whorl can be at the top or the bottom of the spindle, and many modern spindles have a hook on the top end of the shaft to make anchoring your yarn easier. Some ancient spindles are little more than shaped pieces of wood.
A spindle and some fiber are all you'll need to make yarn. Photo by Queren King-Orozco.
You may also find supported spindles in your search. Their shafts will be sharpened at the bottom, and many come with a spindle bowl. These are useful for spinning extremely fine or short fibers, such as cashmere or cotton, because they balance on their tips so the yarn doesn’t need to support the weight of the spindle.
For your first foray into spinning, stick to a drop spindle. It’s less specialized, which means you’ll be successful more often while you’re learning. The fibers that are best spun on a supported spindle also tend to be more expensive and more challenging to spin than a good-quality, medium wool.
What to Spin?
Speaking of wool, let’s talk about spinning fiber. You can spin almost any fiber, though some are more difficult than others. Hand spinners typically work with plant or animal fibers, and most often with wool, silk, cotton, or flax — which becomes linen as soon as it’s spun. Nowadays, you can also find yarn made of nylon or polyester, yarn with stainless steel or copper fibers integrated, and even paper yarn.
Thin out your fiber to about half the thckness you want your finished yarn to be. Photo by Queren King-Orozco.
I’m going to focus on wool, because it’s widely available, inexpensive, and easy to learn with. Sheep’s wool can be soft, scratchy, short, long, fine, coarse, or anywhere in between — and it doesn’t have to be plain white. While most wool produced for commercial mills is white, sheep grow wool in a range of colors, from white to deep cocoa brown and black. There are even sheep whose wool is naturally silver.
You might know of Merino, a breed that produces very soft, very fine wool. Merino is lovely, but the fiber is so short that it’s difficult for beginners to spin (I should know; it’s what I started on). Other breeds, such as Teeswater and Leicester Longwool, produce silky wool with fiber up to a foot long, which is difficult for a beginner to manage, too. One of my favorite breeds to spin is Bluefaced Leicester, which is considered a medium wool — the lustrous fiber is usually around 4 to 6 inches long and reasonably soft. Finn, Targhee, Dorset, and Jacob are other good medium wools to start on, and if you’re very sensitive to scratchiness, Shetland sheep produce a fine, soft wool that’s still easy to spin.
Look for wool top or roving to begin with. “Top” is made of fibers that have been cleaned and combed to run in the same direction. It’s ideal for making a smooth, dense yarn. “Roving” is clean fibers that have been carded, so they’re going in all different directions. It’s ideal for making a softer, fluffier yarn. Either one will do just fine to learn on.
Spinning yarn is a three-step process: First, you’ll spin fiber into a continuous strand spinners call “singles.” Knitters would call it “single-ply.” Then, you’ll wind the singles into a ball. Finally, you’ll ply them into finished yarn.
Yarn holds together through twist alone. When you make singles, you’ll be adding twist in one direction to your fiber, which will make it hold together as long as it’s under tension. Always make sure the free end of your singles is anchored, whether in your hand or wrapped around your spindle. If you let go, they’ll untwist and turn back into fiber.
Plying, or twisting multiple singles strands around each other in the opposite direction, solves that problem. To make two-ply yarn, take two singles strands (or both ends of the same strand), attach them both to your spindle, and twist them around each other in the opposite direction from how you originally spun them. After that, no matter which direction the yarn tries to untwist, it’ll be stopped by the opposing twist.
Tease out a few fibers from your top or roving so you can see how long they are. To spin, you’ll be stretching the fiber out — or “drafting” it — to about the thickness you want your yarn to be, and you’ll need to make sure you aren’t tugging on both ends of the same hairs. The fibers have to be able to slide past each other for you to thin them out, so don’t grip the fibers too hard when stretching your fiber.
This method of spinning is called “park and draft,” and it’s a good way to get the motions down without trying to keep track of all of them at once. Find a comfortable chair, and sit close to the edge.
Hang your spindle from a folded-over section at the very end of your fiber supply, and pinch the top of the loop firmly. Photo by Queren King-Orozco.
Anchor the fiber. Tease out a section of fiber half the width of your thumb and about 2 inches long from the end of your top or roving, keeping it connected to the rest of the fiber. Fold this thinned-out section in half to make a small loop, and pinch the base of the loop with your dominant hand. Hook your spindle on the loop and let it hang there — don’t let go of the loop — and then give the spindle a clockwise spin with your other hand.
You’ll be able to see and feel the twist build up in the fiber, and then release as the spindle reverses. The trick to drop spindling is to let the twist build up while the spindle is moving in the direction you started it, and then to catch the spindle before it reverses and undoes your work.
Use your nondominant hand to twirl the spindle by rolling the shaft quickly up or down you fingers with your thumb. Photo by Queren King-Orozco.
Build up twist. Give the spindle another spin, but this time, catch it just as it starts to reverse. Hold the shaft between your knees so you have both hands free. Move your nondominant hand to pinch just below your dominant hand (this will be right above the spindle hook, for now).
Draft. Move your dominant hand back a few inches, and tug gently on the fiber to thin it out until it’s about half the width of your thumb.
When some twist has built up, hold the spindle with your knees and draft out a section of fiber, and then release the twist to create a new length of singles. Photo by Queren King-Orozco.
Let the twist out. Pinch with your dominant (upper) hand, and open your nondominant (lower) hand. You’ll see the twist run up into the fiber and transform it into singles. Give the singles a little tug to make sure there’s enough twist to hold them together. If they start to drift apart, you’ll need more twist. Move your dominant hand closer to the spindle hook before you give it another spin.
You can wind singles in figure-eights around your fingers before winding them onto your spindle. Photo by Queren King-Orozco.
Build up twist. Keep pinching the fiber with your dominant hand, and give the spindle another clockwise spin. If you change direction, your singles will fall apart. When your singles start to kink up, or when the spindle starts to reverse, catch it and hold it with your knees again.
Keep repeating these steps — build up twist, draft, let the twist out — until you have an arm’s length of singles. Your singles should be firmly twisted, but smooth. If they have kinks when you stretch them out, you’ll need to draft a little more fiber and let the twist into it.
Leave the original loop of fiber anchored on the spindle hook. Photo by Queren King-Orozco.
When you have an arm’s length of singles, you’re going to start winding the yarn onto the shaft of the spindle — this is how to store singles while you’re making them. Pull the singles so the loop on the hook slides down to the base — not off the hook. Then, bring the singles down below the whorl, hold them against the shaft with your thumb, and start winding them onto the shaft. You can start by moving the hand holding the singles around the shaft, but after you get a few wraps on top of each other to anchor the singles, it’ll be easier to twist the spindle itself to wind up the singles. Leave yourself about a foot of singles to come back up over the whorl, just to the side of the strand running from the hook down to the shaft, and wind around the hook two or three times.
Wind singles firmly onto the shaft; looseness allows knots and kinks to develop. Photo by Queren King-Orozco.
Continue spinning, and every time you have a new arm’s length of singles, unhook them, wind onto the shaft, and come back up to wind two or three times around the hook. As your hands get better at drafting smoothly, you’ll be able to let your spindle hang from the yarn you’re creating and spin continuously. You’ll find a rhythm of spinning, pausing to catch the spindle, and winding your new singles onto the shaft. If you need to stop, just wind all your singles on except for the shortest length that will allow you to get back to the hook, loop them around the hook a few times, and set the spindle down.
Working Both Ends Toward the Middle
You can’t ply directly off your spindle unless you have three spindles total: two with singles spun the same direction, and one empty to hold the plied yarn. I’ve done this, but it can get tricky to manage three spindles at once. It’s easier to ply both ends of one singles strand together by winding them into a center-pull ball. Your finished yarn will be slightly less than half the length of your singles when you ply by folding them in half, because the plying twist will consume a tiny bit of the length of the yarn.
Wind singles into a neat center-pull ball before you start plying. Photo by Queren King-Orozco.
To wind a center-pull ball, you’ll need something smooth and cylindrical to act as the core. A pencil or marker, a very smooth dowel, or a paper-towel tube would all serve the purpose. Hold whatever you’re using as your core in your nondominant hand. Take the end of your singles and lay it against the core, with about 4 inches of tail toward you. Hold it with your thumb and start wrapping the singles around the core at a slight diagonal, rotating the core in the opposite direction from your wraps. You’ll make a neat little bird nest of singles around the core. When you get to the end, leave your singles looped over the hook of the spindle.
Ply, Ply Away
Pull the core out of the middle of your ball of singles. The ball might collapse a little; that’s OK. Take the loop off your spindle hook, and knot it to the end emerging from the center of the ball. Hook the spindle on the new loop, with the knot at the bottom.
If the ball of singles is small enough, you can hold it loosely in your hand while you ply. Photo by Queren King-Orozco.
Hold the ball loosely in your dominant hand, pinch the paired singles just above the hook (like you did when you were just getting started), and lightly spin the spindle counterclockwise. You can park the spindle, unwind a length of paired singles, and spin; or simply let the two strands coming from the ball of singles feed out through your fingers as twist builds up. You’ll want enough twist in the yarn to make the singles act like a unit, but not so much that your yarn kinks up.
Here, on pink singles and one blue singles are plied to show a two-ply yarn structure clearly. Photo by Queren King-Orozco.
Again, when you have an arm’s length of yarn, slide the yarn on the hook down to the base — not off the hook. Then, bring the yarn down below the whorl, hold it against the shaft with your thumb, and start winding it onto the shaft. Leave yourself about a foot to come back up over the whorl, resting it next to the first strand, and to loop once or twice around the hook before you keep plying.
When you get close to the end of your singles, the ball will collapse into a loop of yarn. I just stick a finger through the loop and let the spindle hang from it while I finish plying.
Finishing Your Yarn
When you’re finished plying, you can unwind your yarn from the spindle. If you made a lot of yarn (for example, many of my projects reach about 1000 yards in length), wrap it around something fairly large, such as a picture book or the back of a chair, to keep it neat. The yarn might untwist a bit when you let it hang loose, and that’s OK. It’s just finding the balance point between the twist of the singles, which want to unwind counterclockwise, and the plying twist, which wants to unwind clockwise.
When you feel confident with your spinning, you can try techniques such as chain-plying, which makes a 3-ply yarn with distinct sections of color. Photo by Caitlin Wilson.
Many spinners wash their yarn to set the twist and make it even more stable. Washing yarn isn’t like washing dishes, though — just soak the yarn in room-temperature water until it’s wet all the way through, gently squeeze it to get most of the water out, and let it hang to dry. Hot water or lots of agitation will make felt out of your yarn.
Photo by Caitlin Wilson
You’ll get more consistent with practice, and then you can start spinning to make a particular type of yarn — or you can keep spinning just for the fun of it, and figure out what to do with the yarn you make afterward. Spinning can be as complicated or as simple as you want it to be.
Spindle and Fiber Suppliers
Online suppliers are convenient, but check your local yarn shop for camaraderie to accompany supplies. Fiber folks love to assist newcomers, and connecting with local spinners is a great way to get tips and encouragement.
Caitlin Wilson is an editor for Mother Earth News and a lifelong textile enthusiast. You can keep up with her endless rotation of projects and new hobbies online at www.Sun-Shine-And-Roses.Blogspot.com.