Home > Craft Topics > Craft Introductions > 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
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.
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:
and hill breeds
and lustrous breeds
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
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.
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
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
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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