Learn to Turn Natural Fibers into Yarn
By Maggie Howe
Spinning natural fibers into yarn is an age-old art, practiced by people in nearly every culture. “Spinning” is simply twisting fibers together so they make a strong, usable cord.
Many kinds of natural fibers can be spun: plant fibers such as cotton, nettle, linen, hemp, yucca; and animal fibers such as wool, alpaca, angora, mohair, yak or buffalo. Spinning can, at first glance, seem difficult. However, like many crafts, it really isn’t — it simply requires a bit of knowledge and a little practice. Become proficient at this skill, and you’ll convert animal fiber to yarn, then into clothes for all seasons. It’s a fulfilling hobby and pastime that adds clothes to our closets, takes us back to our roots, and lightens the load on our pocketbook all at the same time.
Tools for spinning
To learn to spin, you need two things — some fiber to spin, and a wheel or drop spindle upon which to spin it.
Drop spindles are the oldest and simplest tools used for spinning fiber into yarn. A drop spindle is essentially a weighted stick or dowel that is spun by hand and used to twist the fibers. Many people begin spinning with a drop spindle, because they are inexpensive, easy to make, lightweight, and they don’t take up much room. You can purchase an excellent drop spindle for less than $30, or make one for less than that. There are even drop spindles made from recycled compact discs, although I don’t recommend these because they are too light and difficult to keep spinning steadily, which can be frustrating for a beginner.
A better option is to look for a slightly heavier spindle made of wood, which will still be relatively inexpensive yet easier to use. There are numerous online tutorials and much information available on how to both make and use a variety of drop spindles.
You also might want to invest in a spinning wheel — or, if you’re lucky, you may have inherited one from a relative. If you’re interested in purchasing a wheel, expect to spend between $200 and $700 on a new, high-quality wheel. As with anything, you can spend as much or as little money as you like.
If purchasing a used wheel, I recommend getting one that the seller has utilized recently; many antique wheels are available, but most are in need of repair, misaligned, or sometimes merely decorative. Personally, I find it interesting and worthwhile to find, repair and use old wheels, but it’s not always an easy task for someone just learning to spin. Look online or check out the Yellow Pages to find a local fiber store, yarn store or spinning guild. They will be glad to help you find your perfect wheel, and, most likely, they will be happy to show you how to use it. Spinners and fiber folk are generally friendly and helpful.
Spinning wheels are more expensive than drop spindles, take up more space, and are less portable. They do, however, produce yarn at a much faster rate and, I think, are easier to use once you have a little experience with spinning. If at all possible, try out both types of spinning before you commit to any purchase. In many areas, you’ll find a local class, spinning group or historical farm organization that will provide you with useful tips, tools and techniques. Additionally, YouTube is an excellent source for free, short spinning videos and technique tutorials.
The next question is: What fiber will you spin? The vocabulary can be a bit daunting at first.
Wool comes from sheep — and an astonishing array of sheep breeds are out there, each with wool of different length, color, texture and crimp (waviness). You also can find spinning fibers from alpacas, llamas, Angora rabbits and Angora goats.
Fiber from an Angora rabbit is referred to as Angora, while fiber from an Angora goat is referred to as mohair, which can be confusing if you focus only on breed names.
Wool is typically the easiest to find, and it’s relatively inexpensive and easy to work with, making it a great choice for a beginner.
Fiber that has just been cut — or shorn — off an animal is typically referred to as a raw fleece.
It then needs to be “skirted,” meaning the unusable and extra-dirty bits are removed.
Then it can be washed, carded (combed) and dyed. At this point, it can be sold as roving, or a portion of fiber that’s been washed and combed into tidy ropes of fiber — I often describe roving as “unspun yarn.”
It also can be combed into clouds — big fluffy piles of clean, soft fiber ready to spin — or batts, which look like little blankets of fiber.
Fiber can be spun at any stage after it is shorn and skirted. Some people spin “in the grease,” which means spinning wool that has not been washed.
The type of fiber you choose to spin will ultimately depend on what is available to you, what type of yarn you want to make, and how much you want to pay for the fiber.
For beginners, I strongly recommend purchasing 100-percent wool roving. If you have a local fiber farm or fiber shop, visit and chat with the owners. They undoubtedly will be glad to help you purchase something suitable for a beginning spinner.
If you have your own fiber animals, you can choose how much of this process to do yourself. Every bit of it can be done yourself.
Some folks choose to pay to have the fiber shorn and sent off to a fiber mill to have it washed, carded and even dyed. It seems somewhat magical to send away a smelly, greasy wool fleece and have a box of clean, fluffy ready-to-spin wool sent back to you; it is equally magical and maybe more fulfilling to experience and understand every step of the process along the way. The choice is yours.
Spinning a yarn
Once you have chosen your fiber and built, purchased or borrowed a drop spindle or a wheel, you are ready to begin the process of learning how to spin. Watch videos on YouTube, take a class, or have a friend or local spinner get you started — while it truly is simple in concept, it must be learned with your body as well as your mind.
Sit at your wheel and simply practice pedaling the wheel, evenly and in one direction. If using a drop spindle, hold it by the leader string and spin it. Touch and feel the fiber, pull it apart and roll it back together, learn how it behaves.
Attach your roving to the leader string on your wheel or spindle, and gently begin spinning.
If you are spinning on a wheel, pedal the wheel in one direction while drafting — separating and smoothing — the natural fibers. Use your front hand to control how fast the yarn pulls into the wheel and your back hand to control the amount of fiber that goes onto the wheel at one time. This controls how thick or thin your yarn will become. Don’t worry about lumps or bumps — you can and will learn how to make perfectly smooth yarn, if you desire. For your first attempt, simply try to make yarn that holds together.
Be easy on yourself in the beginning — learning complex motor skills takes time. Do it in a quiet place where you can concentrate. Spin until you’re frustrated or tired, then stop and put it away. Try it again tomorrow, and the next day. I recommend spinning a little bit every day, if you can, to make learning easy and enjoyable. In time, you will learn to enjoy a relaxing afternoon at the wheel or with the spindle.
Spinning isn’t for everyone, but for many people, it is an enjoyable hobby or small business opportunity. For many small farms, raising fiber animals can be a valuable addition, especially if you know enough about spinning to raise great fiber that hand spinners will love. This age-old hobby and skill set is becoming increasingly popular, as people once again learn how to grow, process and enjoy a small farm’s bounty.
Marketing fiber animals
If you want to sell fiber to spinners, there are several things you must know.
First, you must engage in feeding and pasture management practices that keep vegetable matter — such as burrs, weed seeds and hay particles – out of the animal’s fleece. Consider coating your sheep, working to get rid of cockleburs and such in the pasture, and avoid tossing hay so it gets into the animal’s fiber. This can make the difference between a completely worthless fleece and one that sells easily.
Second, hire a good shearer and let her know that the fleeces are to be used for spinners. A good shearer will know what this means and do her best to avoid “second cuts” (where the shears go over the fleece a second time, producing short bits of fiber that must be separated out and discarded), and she will know how to handle the fleece once it is off the animal. A good shearer also may help you skirt the fleece (or at least show you how), and even help you evaluate the quality of the fiber.
Third, know the spinning lingo. I’ve had many farmers want to sell me fiber, but they were unable to ask a reasonable price or give me any useful, specific information about it. Know if you have a skirted or unskirted fleece for sale, and its basic quality and value.
Suffolk sheep and more
Suffolk sheep are common in my area, and I’ve had dozens of farmers tell me, “They’re meat sheep, not any good for wool.” In fact, many Suffolk farmers in the United States view the wool as an added expense, because they have to pay to have their sheep sheared every year, and they end up selling the wool to brokers at a loss. But in parts of Europe, Suffolk wool is commonly used for knitting and is considered desirable and useful. Indeed, it is one of my favorite wools! It resists felting, is hard wearing, and even if it’s not the softest of wools, it is perfect for socks, slippers, and sturdy outerwear such as mittens or bulky winter sweaters. It’s also great for rugs. By learning how to utilize this wool for spinning, many Suffolk sheep farmers could easily turn the “cost” of the wool into an on-farm profit.
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