At the beginning of our homeschool adventure, when my daughter was in grade 1, we read A Pioneer Story (published in the USA as A Pioneer Sampler) — and we came across the concept of handspinning yarn for the first time. The book talked about using a drop spindle to spin yarn and we decided we were going to buy a drop spindle and learn to spin. Our first ventures into the world of handspinning met with failure. The antique stores in Langley, BC didn’t have any drop spindles and in fact, had never heard of them.
A Pioneer Sampler: The Daily Life of a Pioneer Family in 1840
The internet was fairly new in 1998 and an internet search turned up very little information. Although there was a spinner and weaver guild around, at the beginning we didn’t even know that they could help us in our quest. Spin Off Magazine was available, if you had a subscription, but it wasn’t sold on the magazine rack of our local grocery store. A visit to the public library turned up some very helpful books that set us on the right path. You can find a selection of the books we found in the links below. My favourite at that time was Pricilla Gibson-Roberts, “Spinning in the Old Way,” but since then I’ve added several comprehensive books to my library. See the selection below.
So if you are in the place we were in 1998 and just starting to explore this ancient art, I’d like to shorten your learning curve. You don’t need to buy a spinning wheel to spin your own yarn. Although hand crafted spindles are beautiful and a delight to work with, you don’t need one to learn to spin. You can make your own spindle with readily available materials and you can work with locally available fleece or wool roving. Learning to spin your own yarn will put you firmly on the path to freedom and creativity and enrich your life, as it has ours.
In order to spin your own yarn you need to have a spindle. Spinning wheels are a significant investment. You don’t want to lay out a lot of cash before you learn to spin. And spinning wheels can complicate the steps that you need to master in order to learn to spin. The spindle brings the learning curve down to just the basics. A basic spindle has 3 parts – a straight stick, a whorl, and an optional hook. Although you can make yarn by twisting fiber, along your thigh, just using your hands and a stick, to wind the yarn onto, the whorl adds momentum to the process and makes the job easier. And if, as we were, you are doing this as a homeschool project, you can make a spindle for every student in your family, with out too much expense or time.
Making a CD spindle:
2 retired CDs
a 3/8 inch dowel, 12 inches long
a 25/64 inch grommet with a 3/8 inch inside diameter
a 3/8 inch screw eye
a 2 foot piece of spun yarn
Take the dowel and sand it well to make it as smooth as possible. Place a small guide hole at the top of the dowel. Screw the 3/8 inch eye into the top of the dowel. Set aside.
Heat the grommet in warm water. Hold 2 CDs together and place the grommet inside the CD hole, working the lip of the grommet over both CDs at both the top and the bottom. The grommet will fit snugly into the CDs. Slip the CDs about 1/4 of the way down the dowel, for a top whorl spindle. The CDs will fit snugly on the dowel. If this is not the case, wrap a piece of tape around the dowel where you want the CDs to fit. This will increase the diameter of the dowel so that the CDs fit snugly.
Using needle nose pliers, gently pry open the eye to create a hook. This will secure your yarn for spinning.
Take the 2 foot piece of already spun yarn and fold it in half. Secure it to the dowel below the whorl, with a larks-head knot. Wind the excess yarn below the whorl, bring the leader over the whorl and secure it at the hook.
As you spin, you will spin above the hook, and wind your yarn onto the spindle below the whorl.
How to spin from prepared roving:
Purchase at least 100 grams of prepared roving to get you started — Romney cross-bred roving, polwarth roving or corriedale roving is best to learn on. Avoid 100% mohair, merino, silk, angora bunny, linen or cotton, if you have a choice. These fibres are all lovely to spin, but if you are learning from the internet, they will increase your challenges.
The easiest fiber to learn to spin from is prepared wool roving from a Romney or a Romney cross sheep. Although I’ve taught beginners to spin from many fibres including linen, and dog hair. By far the easiest fiber to learn on is Romney. You’ll want 500 grams of well prepared roving in order to spin your way beyond the beginner level. Once you learn to spin and you’ve invested the practice time to spin a pound of wool, your hands will be trained and you will be able to spin anything.
So you have the prepared roving and you’re ready to learn to spin. Roving is a carded rope of wool that has all the individual wool fibres aligned and orderly. It is the preparation that is used by commercial spinning machines when they make commercial yarn. You don’t have to have roving to spin from but it makes the learning easier.
You want to separate the roving into smaller, more manageable portions to spin from. Start pulling a few fibres from the end of the roving so you can determine how long the individual fibres are. This is called the “staple length.” In order to separate the roving into manageable portions for handspinning you will need to keep your hands a staple length apart. So place your hands on the roving about 6 to 10 inches from the end. Keep your hands a staple length a part. Pull the roving between your hands and it should easily slide and separate into two portions.
Now take your 6 to 10 inch length of roving and split it lengthwise, by separating it into two relatively equal bundles. Now you’re ready to spin. Begin by pulling a few fibres out from the end of your roving. Attach these fibres to your leader by overlapping them in the crotch between the two pieces of yarn. Giving the spindle a twist, clockwise, while holding the leader, allow the spindle to spin and the twist to build up in the leader yarn. Let the twist run into the unspun fibres that you placed between the leader yarn threads. Now you’re ready to start.
The Park and Draft Method:
As a beginning spinner, you will need to park the spindle between your knees and hold it firmly while drafting the fiber. As your hands learn to draft the fiber and allow the twist to enter the drafting zone, making the yarn, you will need to alternate between spinning the spindle and drafting the fiber while the spindle is parked. Once you are adept at drafting you will be able to draft and spin at the same time. Patience during this time can increase your success rate.
Learning to draft the fiber:
Drafting is separating out the fiber supply and fanning it out to allow the twist to catch only a few fibres, creating the yarn. This spot between the roving and the twist is called the “drafting zone” or the “drafting triangle” and it is the place where the yarn is created.
It doesn’t matter which hand you draft with and which hand you hold the fiber supply in. Try it with both hands and use the one that is most comfortable to you. Don’t hold onto the fiber supply too tightly or you won’t be able to pull any fibres into your drafting zone.
The hand that holds the fiber supply has the job of pinching back the twist and keeping it from entering the fiber supply and grabbing too much fiber, which will make a thick, slub in your yarn. You can increase your success at keeping the twist out of the drafting zone by allowing the leader to go over the bend in your finger, holding your fiber supply hand above the spindle.
The job of the drafting hand is pulling out just enough fiber from the fiber supply and bringing it into the drafting zone, to make the grist of yarn that you desire. Its your drafting hand that works the hardest, moving from the fiber to the drafting zone, ensuring that enough fibres are brought into the drafting zone to create yarn the grist that you desire. Note as you work, the drafting zone will move up your yarn, in relationship to the position of the spindle.
In order to learn to spin, you need both your hands working in harmony. This will happen after you’ve spun 2 spindles full, so don’t get panicky about slubs and thin spots at this stage. Pick a special project, like a hat, to use this first yarn in. Once you’ve spun a pound of wool, you’ll have trouble getting this unique beginner novelty yarn again.
Spin yarn until you can’t comfortably extend your arms anymore above your head. Add a bit of extra twist into your spun yarn. You want this singles yarn to be a bit kinky with twist. The extra twist will even out later when you ply this yarn in the opposite direction, so you need the extra twist now. Then unhook your yarn from the top of the spindle and wrap it around the spindle, below the whorl. Leave about 8 inches of spun yarn and wrap this over the whorl and up to the hook, leaving about 4 inches above the hook to connect with the fiber supply in the drafting zone.
What happens if the fiber separates from the fiber supply in the drafting zone?
No problem, just overlap about a staple length of fiber, allow the twist to run into your overlap and beyond and continue drafting and spinning. The yarn is made as the twist enters the drafting zone and the twist holds the fibres together.
You are going to repeat the process over and over again to create your singles yarn.
1. Spin the spindle to build up twist. Hold onto leader to keep twist from unwinding.
2. Park spindle between your knees, while sitting down.
3. Pull out fiber from the fiber supply with your drafting hand. Allow twist to enter the drafting zone.
4. Spin an arm’s length of yarn.
5. Wind the yarn on the spindle below the whorl.
6. Repeat steps 1 to 5 until spindle cannot hold any more fiber.
7. Unwind yarn from spindle onto a nostepinde or paper core. In the picture Melinda is using a nostepinde to wind her yarn in to a centre pull ball.
8. Reattach the yarn leader and spin more singles.
In this article I’ve given you instructions to make your own CD spindle from readily available materials. I also showed you the Park and Draft method of learning to spin wool on a drop spindle. This week I’ll continue the hand spinning tutorials to get you started on this relaxing and enjoyable hobby. So make a spindle and grab some wool roving and check in tomorrow for another fun tutorial to launch you into the world of handspinning.
Respect the Spindle
Spinning in the Old Way: How (and Why) To Make Your Own Yarn With A High-Whorl Handspindle
Teach Yourself Visually Handspinning (Teach Yourself Visually Consumer)
Intertwined: The Art of Handspun Yarn, Modern Patterns and Creative Spinning (Handspun Revolution)
The Alden Amos Big Book of Handspinning
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Do you have some spinning tips that will help our readers who are learning to spin for the first time? Leave a comment.