In 2004 I started spinning with alpaca because I have a small herd of them. I decided that I needed to learn how to spin so that I could best understand the needs of hand spinners. After all, this was my intended market for fibre sales. My first wheel was an Ashford Joy single treadle with scotch tension and a range of ratios. It?s a versatile wheel and the treadle stand folds up making it very portable. Over the weeks and months that followed I lived and breathed spinning and a passion grew. Through trial and error and much cussing, followed by many ?aha!? moments, I finally began to call myself a hand spinner instead of saying that I was learning to spin. I was rewarded with the ability to spin any kind of yarn I want for any particular project, whether it is for knitting or weaving. After learning to spin with alpaca, I read that alpaca was too difficult for beginners! So, experiment and learn from your own experience when something is inviting you to try it, but perhaps do a test piece before embarking on a major spinning project that leaves the normal parameters of design and materials behind.
If you are considering taking up the craft of hand spinning, it won?t be long before you discover for yourself the addictive quality of this traditional craft and the ?other? world that suddenly opens before you as a creative adventure. It?s hard to resist, so my advice is don?t try, just enjoy it.
The following gives you the basic steps in hand spinning that I hope will make your mouth water and get those creative juices flowing. But before the business of spinning, there?s the small matter of finding the right animal fibre, wool or plant fibre to spin with, and some equipment.
Basic equipment would be a drop spindle or spinning wheel, carding combs, paddles or a drum carder. The drum carder is probably best left until you decide you really must have one as they are not cheap. You will find it invaluable to have an umbrella swift, skein winder or niddy noddy to wind your yarn into skeins, and a ball winder of some kind.
At the back is the drum carder with doffing pins and flick carders
I could not be without these basics, but it is possible to improvise with what you have to hand if necessary. An upturned stool would do instead of a skein winder, a smooth stick would create a hand wound centre-pull ball of yarn, and a dog brush with tines would take the place of carding paddles. In essence hand spinning can be done on the cheap, or you can enjoy shopping. I started out on the cheap and still do improvise, but discovered that I also like to shop. A good friend that I taught to spin was inspired to make her own wheel from hazel and a bicycle wheel. You can see her home made wheel on our website.
So you have your chosen equipment and a fibre supply. The first step is to have a project in mind. With a project in mind you are less likely to find that having spun this wonderful yarn, you now don?t know what to do with it. Having a project in mind enables the fruition of your idea into a finished item.
But for now, your project in mind need simply be that you are learning to spin. Therefore have no agenda other than to explore and learn a new skill. How the yarn looks as you go along doesn?t matter and will change, showing a progression from beginnings and mistakes, toward competence and achievement. I have kept my first skeins of over twisted, under twisted yarns as a record of my achievement and progress. One day I may even use them for a project.
Fibre preparation is the cornerstone to hand spinning. Like any foundation it needs to be carried out sufficiently well to give you the outcome that you hope for. With this in mind, it is well worth taking your time over the process. What method of spinning you want to use (woollen for knitting, worsted for weaving), whether you are intending to spin a ?fancy? yarn or a blended yarn, will all determine how you want to prepare your fibres.
For worsted spinning I use the drum carder, which produces a ?batt? and aligns the fibres in a parallel direction to each other. Drafting first from the end which corresponds to the ?cut? end of the fibre (for worsted spinning), produces a smooth and strong yarn that shows the lustre well and is much less hairy or fluffy looking than woollen spun yarn. Worsted yarns generally also have more twists per inch, aiding durability during the weaving process. The application for worsted yarn is usually for the weaving of cloth, blankets, rugs or tapestry.
For woollen spinning I prefer to use a flick carder or carding paddles. With the flick carder I spin from the fold (the centre) of the length of fibres, which spins them in a random alignment. This random alignment creates loft and traps air within the yarn, producing softness and the ability to trap warmth within it. Carding paddles create a similar random alignment of fibres, producing a fibre supply called a ?rolag?.
There are many ways to prepare fibre for hand spinning but to begin with, the methods of carding already mentioned will serve you well enough. Most carding equipment (if bought new), will come with full instructions on how to card, or there are any number of excellent books on the subject that take you through step by step.
Ready to Spin
Getting started ? Hand spinning on a spinning wheel involves drafting the fibre with your hands while treadling the wheel with your feet. This can be a challenge at first because our feet and hands are not used to working together in this way. Be patient and practice. Firstly, sit at the wheel and treadle clockwise then anti-clockwise, stopping and starting; treadling slowly enough to keep it going. Clockwise treadling produces a ?Z? twisted yarn; anti-clockwise an ?S? twisted yarn. It does not matter which you use to spin your singles, as long as you treadle in the opposite direction when plying two singles together to obtain a balanced 2ply yarn. Continue with this practice until your foot has learned its job. Then you are ready to move on to the next step.
Preparing the wheel for spinning ? First you need to tie a leader on to the bobbin. This is a thread or yarn which needs to be about 24? long. Tie one end of the leader to the centre of the bobbin?s core, and thread the rest of the leader through the hooks on one side of the flyer towards the orifice. Using the hook supplied with your wheel, feed the leader through the orifice. Start to treadle in your chosen direction (?Z? or ?S?). If the leader does not start to wind onto the bobbin, you will need to adjust the tension. You can turn the bobbin by hand at first to wind the leader securely around the core.
Attaching a Leader to the bobbin
Adjust tension knob until you feel a slight pull when treadling. (?Tilly? was too busy to help - phew!)
Adjusting the tension - Tension is balanced just right when drafted and spun yarn is wound onto the bobbin, when your drafting hand moves toward the orifice. Feel for that slight pull as you hold back the yarn. If your tension is too tight fibre will not take up enough twist and it will feel like you are fighting with the wheel for control of take up on to the bobbin (the wheel will snatch it from you). Tension will need to be adjusted periodically as the bobbin gains weight with spun yarn. Adjustments will need to be minute, so as not to overcook it either way.
Joining fibre supply to leader - Allow the fibres to hook onto the leader as you are treadling. Then slide your drafting fingers toward the hand holding the fibre supply. You can stop the twist entering the fibre supply by pinching with your drafting fingers to control it. Then allow the spun yarn onto the bobbin by moving your hand toward the orifice. Move your drafting hand back toward the fibre supply and continue drafting and allowing the spun yarn onto the bobbin. Do not worry about how it looks. Every beginner over-twists the yarn at first and then under-twists, before finding the balance.
Joining your fibre supply to the leader
Drafting the fibres - Drafting allows the fibres to slip past each other to create a section of thinned fibres that will take up the twist, becoming yarn. The area between your two hands is called the drafting zone.
Practice spinning and drafting fibre at a speed that will allow your hands to keep up with your feet, so treadle slowly and with control. This method of spinning is commonly called the ?inch worm? technique and is a useful and valid method for beginners. Once your hands and feet are singing the same tune, you will find the spinning rhythm and everything will flow.
Drafting and controlling the twist
Remember that we master nothing immediately. Mistakes are an integral part of any learning experience. It is well worth finding a tutor to teach you to hand spin. You may find someone who offers classes in hand spinning, but of course practice, practice, practice ? makes perfection. Joining your local guild is recommended, as the combined creative wisdom and shared knowledge of its members is invaluable. There is also an online guild of weavers, spinners and dyers that is well worth joining.
Contact Amanda: (01458) 850092 for details of hand spinning workshops
www.avalonalpaca.org.uk (group of small breeders in the Isle of Avalon)