Must have been about 30 years ago my mother became enchanted with spinning wool, then weaving it. She made a few things, and produced some rather lumpy yarn (we call this "artisanal yarn:), and just about the time she'd learned about washing wool, cleaning and carding wool, making rovings, spinning it on a small classic spinning wheel, weaving fabric, and then making a coat from one of the weavings, she quit - her back demanded it! All her equipment stayed with her, however, and it was so valuable and symbolic to her that she'd never part with it.
I was interested enough that I studied up on it. I was READY to spin and weave. Just never had the chance to get the equipment. It is all very expensive. Considered a drop spindle, but never got to it - I had no fiber, and could not afford it at any time I was interested in actually starting a new skill. Figured it maybe needed to wait until I could raise sheep!
Twenty five years later my mother is on her way to a nursing home, and the spinning wheel, carders, niddy-noddy, and all the rest are given away. Her furniture, yarns, and other supplies are taken out of the house. At the very last, nobody cares about what is left behind with the clean-up.
Some fancy yarns, and two bags of oddball fiber come my way.
Fiber I now have. A means of spinning I do NOT have - ok, so technically you can use a rock, or even a stick. But I'm not into it enough to want to go to that length, and learning to spin with a rock is far more challenging! A drop spindle would do, even though it isn't that far advanced from the rock. At least it would allow me to learn, and a drop spindle goes anywhere, and is easy to transport.
You can tell I'm trying to justify it, but I cannot even afford that at the moment. I look them up anyway, and lament the absence of a more functional type than you can usually find (trendy has won out over function at the moment). Spinning is in vogue in a certain part of the crafting world, and a wide range of very cheaply made, expensively priced, and barely functional drop spindles have proliferated across the crafting world, to enchant the people who want to try their hand at a skill they'll play with and then put away forever. As long as it LOOKS like it will work, quality is not really required. I cannot even justify the cost of a drop spindle today, even though I now have wool.
I look over the fiber to decide what to do with it, anyway.
One bag I cannot use, it is angora rabbit fur. Maybe someday, but not today. You need wool or cotton to spin that into, since you don't use all angora, it is too slippery and straight to hold by itself. You blend it or spin it into wool, and I have no appropriate wool, you need something with some crimp. It isn't something you'd begin with, either.
The other is long, and curly, but not crimpy. I take a guess, and figure it is either sheep long wool (too shiny, I'm thinking), or mohair (angora goat). Finally learn it is kid mohair, or angora goat hair from a young goat. It is truly beautiful, a light off white that has a gorgeous sheen to it. Soft to the touch - softer than the mohair I've handled before. Some of it is carded, some is still in locks - NONE of it is prepped into rovings.
This wool is long enough that it will be hard to spin, and usually mohair is blended with wool, but can be spun by itself. My hands and mind are beguiled...
I really want to USE this wool. I know I can't now, so I put it downstairs, to be packed into the boxes of "things we do not use here".
I have a friend who spins, so we took the angora rabbit fur out to her - it is half brown, and half white, separated in the bag.
We talk about spinning and weaving a bit - she is threading a 2 heddle loom and getting ready to weave... something. She does not say what. But it could be a large something, the warp is very long, and 200 threads wide.
I tell her I have a bag of some kind of wool, but I'm not sure what it is. Would love to spin, but that isn't possible now. I try to tell her what kind it is, but it doesn't matter much. It is wool, it can be spun!
She asks me if I want a drop spindle - she insists she'll never use it, she has two very nice spinning wheels, and a drop spindle is too much of a hassle to use.
I try to convey my delight, which is difficult since her husband is here and I cannot risk a happy dance. I'm not sure she quite understands that I really DO want to spin the wool, and that a drop spindle is truly a blessing to me. That I've been wanting to spin for many years, and now that I have wool, I must have spinning!
We talk a little more, and we leave.
I took out the drop soindle today (she gave it to me yesterday... you see, I wasted no time!), to see if I can learn how to spin. With that. A too-light little spindle with a wheel on one end, called a Whorl.
There are two basic types of drop spindles - and a few oddballs (and supported spindles which are not exactly drop spindles since they do not drop). One is a top whorl, one is a bottom whorl.
There used to only be one kind - the bottom whorl. Someone came up with the bright idea of turning it upside down. It is currently trendy. It doesn't work well, but it is trendy. So you really CAN'T get anything else!
Sure enough, this is the standard top whorl. Fortunately you can use it either direction since it has a finial. And you really NEED to turn it upside-down if it is a top whorl, because you'll save yourself half the hassle if you do. (I'm writing this after using it as a bottom whorl, I can't even manage to work out how to twirl it efficiently if it is whorl-up.)
I pull a bit of wool, twist it, and tie a knot in it to hold it to the hook under the whorl. The knot promptly unties and slips off. This wool is so slick the knot will not tighten and stay tight, it just slips open.
Scratch my head. There's a standard solution here, but I don't know what it is, and nobody is here to teach me, so I have to figure it out and pray for inspiration.
Spin a bit in my fingers, pulling it out into a fairly small thread - about the size of baby yarn - unspin it, fold it over into a loop, then spin it back on itself, and put the loop over the hook. This works admirably.
Spin a bit more (all this just free hand, the spindle is NOT working yet). run it up around the whorl (through the groove in it), and work enough to wrap around the spindle a few times and then anchor on the finial at the top - just a half-hitch, which will hold if you get it tight without unwrapping all the yarn from the spindle. It's a trick. Pull the OTHER way. It takes three or four times of doing it to master it.
I finally get the hang of the spindle. Twirling it to twist the yarn, spinning out about 8 inches, and then flipping the half-hitch off, winding the new yarn onto the spindle, and setting a new half-hitch, pulling it tight.
I've watched people spin before, but never with a drop spindle. So I have seen the yarn produced, both by someone who spins a fairly even fine yarn to make into a two-ply, and someone who spun a single ply worsted weight yarn with quite a bit of texture. So I know you can do some really awesome stuff, and I want to do this well.
I find that I CAN produce a fairly even yarn.
It is tricky to get the thickness right with any fiber, but this is particularly obstinate.
It is a long wool, and slick. Long wools are harder to get even, and more difficult to draw out, because the fibers just don't move as easily, and they build up to a thicker weight yarn very easily. Since it is kind of a slick wool, the fibers WILL draw if you work them just right, but sometimes they just slide right apart and you have a broken thread. It isn't like they pull apart - they just SLIDE apart. You feel it start to slip, and stop pulling, and the wool just keeps right on separating! It is not like sheep wool that kind of catches itself together as you work with it, this is more slippery.
I had to work with this stuff for more than an hour to get the hang of it. Between the drop spindle and the tricky mohair, it was difficult to get a method for producing an even yarn, without fighting with it all the time.
You really need four hands for tuis, and I only figured out how to have THREE.
So I'm pulling small layers of the carded wool off, and fussing with them until I have a strand roving of even width and depth, and then I can spin it fairly quickly, and then work up another thin layer. A small tray table in front of me helps me lay it out ahead, and if I get THAT right, the spinning is fairly easy. If I do not get that right, the fiber is so difficult to work with that I cannot get an even yarn from it.
Kevin comes home for lunch, and I stop for a bit.
I have to figure out how to anchor the spun yarn so I do not lose my work. The half-hitch I use for anchoring it between episodes of spinning does not work. This yarn won't hold a half-hitch without tension on both ends, and when I let go of the unspun end, the whole thing just loosens and comes undone.
I add another half-hitch. Better. Then a third. That will do - it holds well enough that I feel good about putting things up for a bit.
My pants are wearing the evidence of my efforts - I look like I wrestled with a shedding animal, only the hair is curly. A few minutes picking wool off and putting it back into the carded wool takes care of that.
All I've been working with is the carded bit of wool that I found at the bottom of one bag. Another bag was stuffed inside that bag, and the inner bag has the uncarded wool - nicely washed, thank goodness! I am not sure what I'll do here, because buying wool carders is NOT in the budget. Those things are just too expensive! I may be able to just loosen bits into strands and spin it anyway, I've been told this is the historic poverty method, and so far that's the track I'm on, so I might as well follow it as far as it is convenient to follow it.
This fiber is difficult. I know I keep saying that, but it is. Fortunately it is just slick enough to be able to pull into thinner strands prior to twisting it. Too hard and it slips apart, and you then have to fuss to get it to merge together again. Too little tugging on it and it ends up too bulky, and it can build up to a massive bulk VERY easily due to the length of the fibers.
I work it a lot, and have to pull hard to loosen and thin out the fiber cluster as it approaches the spun work. This is one way in which it is different than short wool - shorter fibers slip more easily, long ones sometimes don't, because they go so far into the spun yarn. I can only imagine how much more careful I'd have to be with the thickness if I were working with a long wool that was not so slick, because the slickness of this is about the only thing that makes it manageable to keep the width even - and then it has that down side of sometimes just sliding apart when you don't expect it!
It occurs to me to weigh the wool just so I know how much I have. Everyone says that it will make FAR LESS yarn than I think it will, so I want to know if there is enough to even make anything from once it is spun.
The bag weighs out at 1 lb. A WHOLE POUND of mohair! That stuff sells for dollars to the ounce now, in the condition I have (nicely washed, not carded, but neat and usable). I'm guessing I have $50-$100 worth of wool here.
There is a label - it identifies it as Mohair, and lists the weight as 1#, and the price as $12.
That's right. TWELVE DOLLARS. Once upon a time, a long time ago, someone spent a very great deal of money on a large amount of mohair. And today, I have that same mohair, which would cost a very great deal more.
I am rich!
I am also a little sore. I sometimes get rhabdo in my hands if I've worked at something repetitive for an extended time (this happens if I get toxed too badly due to chemical exposure), and the lace shawl I'm crocheting has caused my hand to have a VERY sore muscle between my thumb and my wrist. This is not enough rhabdo to cause kidney issues, just enough to HURT LIKE BEJEEBERS and keep me awake at night right after I stress it. So today I am trying hard not to make that hand any more sore than it was.
My back took a beating - I figured it would, which is one fear I had regarding spinning and weaving. But again, it was not as bad as I figured it could have been.
I feel good about picking it up again tomorrow.
At the rate I'm spinning it will take about three or four days to fill the spindle. Once I start on the uncarded wool my speed will change. Faster or slower, one or the other, likely a touch slower. But experience also speeds things up, so I should gain a bit of speed over the next few days.
The slow speed of the drop spindle is a disappointment, and a spinning wheel would certainly make it easier to get it done. But I am feeling very grateful for what I AM able to do, and that I have the opportunity to master one more skill at a time when I did not think it was possible.
One more thing checked off my list.
UPDATE: Today I ran out of carded wool. I have just the bag of locks (as pictured above). So I am pulling it out to tease apart and use, by hand. I have no carders, this is my only option.
It isn't much harder to work with - I have to pull a small bit of debris from it as I work, and I have to separate the locks some, and then kind of pull them out to mimic the carded wool. It is fussier about slippage though, and I run into some thin spots that just slide apart until I get it overlapped enough between pieces. It is so slippery that it does not CATCH like sheep wool. It just slides. So I have to hold the overlap.
Mohair was used traditionally, and still is a little, for making doll hair. It is finer than human hair, very silky when kept in locks, and has a lovely curl, though the curl is not even lock to lock. You can really SEE the curls and shine in this uncarded mohair wool. So if you imagine spinning with very fine doll hair, you get the idea that maybe this actually ISN'T like spinning sheep wool!
I am pulling the mohair apart into thin locks to spin, which is the roughest form of a technique known as finger carding. It is different than working with hand carded wool.
You can see that the spinning here is rougher, with more tufts and loops, and the yarn is harder to get thin, so it ends up thicker. I am spinning from this kind of locks. The more I spin, the more I realize I need to work the wool more before spinning.
The spindle fills up. It gets awkward to use when it has too many layers of yarn on it. The yarn does not anchor as easily, because it wants to unwind from the spindle, and it gets harder to stop it from doing so as the yarn ball gets larger.
You can't fill the spindle with a cone of yarn, like you so often see in pictures online. If you do, you really CAN'T anchor the yarn at the top of the spindle - you could do that if you figure out how to make a top whorl spin - oh, I know... It spins easily enough, because this is how I start my yarn on the spindle. But once you get working, the spindle is too LOW DOWN to work easily, and you end up with your spinning up there, and the spindle down there, instead of the two just inches apart, and you work much harder to do the same amount of work. This is why I say it is harder to use a top whorl, and why I say I cannot figure out how to spin it conveniently.
Halfway through today the whorl fell off. Just dropped down onto the loop of yarn below, mid-spin! Made me feel really silly trying to twist the thing!
I can see that it was glued on with some kind of substance no doubt labeled as "all purpose really tough glue that sticks to everything", because it has separated so smoothly that it is clear it stuck to nothing.
I manage to get the whorl back on, and shove it into place. The anchor yarn below is messed up, but I manage to get that fixed also - the anchor yarn was just there to make it easier to get the ball of yarn started anyway, it serves no purpose in the actual spinning.
The results of the spinning are DIFFERENT than they were with the carded wool. More little curly bits and loops sticking out, and the yarn is not as smooth on the surface. It is still looking good, just much more handspun. This difference is remarkable enough that I am having to decide whether I need to work the wool more before I spin it (pull it out into something more like a batt), or whether I am ok with the amount of curls and loops on the yarn.
The left side is the carded wool, the right side is the wool spun from locks - so we have fine yarn, and tufted yarn.
I am having to be more careful with slippage and thin spots also, especially if there are curls on either side. The curls just unwrap, and the thin spots just slide apart. This is specifically a problem with working with locks. It did not happen with the carded wool. So I am adjusting the way I separate the locks and pull them into workable strands.
You can't just SPIN with locks, you have to work them first. You pull out a bit, then pull it apart - not into more strands, but into a flat, slightly matted layer. If you leave too much in locks, it won't merge with the strands you are attempting to spin it into. When you work it into flat strand rovings, or thin batts, it is called "finger carding".
I have finally spun enough to wind it OFF the spindle, and onto a dowel. It has taken three days, working a little each day, to make this much yarn. I wonder how women did it in earlier times, only because it is so very slow. It is not as hard on my back and hands as I feared it might be, but it is clear you could not make a living at this unless you had a good spinning wheel, and even providing enough for basic clothing would require spinning a little every day.
It makes a nice looking ball on the dowel, though not large. The dowel will hold more than one small ball of yarn, so I'll wind another onto it, and then wind them off together to ply the yarn.
I should have something a little heavier than a worsted weight when it is finished. And I HAVE to finish.
I have just enough wool to actually make something. It would be a pity to not do so.
On the positive side, every day I work at this I end up a little less sore than the day before.
My goal, after producing one ball of yarn that is thin, relatively smooth, and pretty even, which was produced from carded wool, and then another ball that is absolutely FULL of character, with little curls and loops on the edges and more variation in the width, which was produced from finger carded locks, is to figure out how to work the fibers better when finger carding, to get results more like the first ball of yarn, from finger carding. Failing that, I need to be able to purchase a flicker or other inexpensive tool for combing those locks and producing better strand rovings.
While I kind of like the look of the yarn with more character, it is FAR more difficult to crochet or knit it, because loops and curls just give you fits with the needles or hooks. The tufted yarn is just NOT something I can work with!
I'm pondering taking the second ball apart, unspinning it and re-carding, then re-spinning. But this is hard enough work that I dread THAT also.
So... a few days later...
I have worked out how to do this. And I am getting yarn almost as SMOOTH as I was working from carded, but it is not quite as fine (thiin).
I can now explain how to get very good yarn from 100% uncarded Mohair.
Yes... I KNOW nobody spins Mohair by itself, because it is too difficult. Yes, I know they blend it with wool. And yes, I know WHY they do so.
But I have MOHAIR. I do not have wool. I cannot afford wool. So I am spinning MOHAIR.
Admit it... you would too!
So here is the way you do it.
You card it. If you do, it is still DIFFICULT to work with. Lots of pulling. It does not draw. But sometimes, if you tug really HARD, it PULLS.
If you have no carder, you go poverty carding. That is, you FINGER CARD.
You pull, you tease it apart, you separate EVERY SINGLE LOCK, even the small ones. You tug one end of the locks so they thin out. You gently (or forcefully sometimes) pull the mats apart.
You pick out EVERY BIT of debris in it, even the small bits. Sometimes you lose fiber doing this. Sometimes you do not.
You make sure that the resulting strands and sections of wool are ALL THE SAME DENSITY AND WIDTH. So when pulled out, they produce an even yarn.
This ONE THING is what makes the difference between even yarn, and lumpy yarn, and it is the thing that lets you produce very fine yarn if you are aiming at that.
The end result is thin and wispy Strand Rovings that spin up with very little effort.
It is SLOW, and PATIENT, and FUSSY work.
You can do it if you have nothing better to do.
You cannot do it if you are impatient.
I have nothing better to do, so I finger card Mohair, and spin it into yarn that is getting better and better. It is almost as fine as the yarn I worked from hand carded (this means using Carders).
Here's what I learned to do:
You can't really SEE the difference here between some of this, because of the way the Mohair shines and reflects the light.
You can see that the clumpy locks and the separated locks are different, and HOW they are different. With Mohair, it is ALL about the locks. They either cling together and mess you up, because they loop and curl out of the yarn (making it a torture to knit or crochet with, even though it looks REALLY cool), or they curl back on themselves creating lumps and knots in the wool. Big ones. If you pull them apart though, they can be worked the same as carded Mohair. Mohair NEVER handles the same as sheep wool. I keep saying that. But it does not. So you can SEE, above, that one batch of locks is clumped, and another is separated.
You CAN spin from separated locks. But you get the curls and loops. So we finger card it. The ROUGH finger carding is just pulled out - we start with some locks. We pull them out and tease them apart. The ROUGH finger carded is a thicker batt, and wider, and a little less worked than the fine finger carded. You CAN spin with the Rough Finger Carded wool, but it will produce a MUCH THICKER yarn, with more tufting and looping. If you pull it apart into smaller mini-batts or into thinned strand rovings, it is far easier to spin, and produces a MUCH finer texture and thinner yarn.
I now finger card into much finer strand rovings than the fine finger carded locks shown above. Doing so results in much faster spinning, and far more even yarn.
A few terms I learned while spinning long wool:
Roving: Historically a thin layer of carded wool that has been rolled, preparatory to spinning. Rolling on the diagonal works best for short wools, rolling with the orientation of the strands works best for long wool - and long wool must have very thin layers if you want fine yarn. These may be labeled as Rolled Rovings, or not, and with the confusion in terms today, you may not know what you are getting unless you see it in person, or make it yourself.
Long Roving, or Cut Batt Roving: This is what sells as rovings (without any special naming) in most fiber and yarn shops today, and it will be shown rolled into a ball. It is carded wool, oriented in a single direction, built up into about a 1" thick batt, then cut in strips and rolled up. This spins easily, but also breaks easily because of the cut fibers on the edges. Some people end up with a lot of short fuzz from the cut edges, it depends on the type of fiber.
Strand Roving: Narrow pieces of carded long wool that has been laid or rolled with the orientation of the wool. This may also be just called "Strands", though if properly prepared, the rovings are of similar size, thick or thin, for specific spinning purposes, and you may separate them into thinner bunches for spinning thinner yarn. Long wool is handled and worked differently than short wool, so the preparation of the roving is more important than it is with short wool. When prepping strand rovings by finger carding from locks, make sure the ends are pulled out so the ends are all at different points, no abrupt cuts. The better you prep the rovings, the easier it is to spin a consistent yarn.
Batts: A batt may be either a cleaned fleece, or a single layer, or multiple layers of carded wool - somewhat like quilt batting. Once you card wool, you can stack the carded layers into thicker batts, and you often have to for storage. But you cannot easily separate the layers when you go to work them. What I had was batts made of carded wool layers, and they were folded. I could separate some of the layers, but not all, to create rolled rovings.
Locks: Locks are long wool clumps that cling and curl together. You can finger card locks, but doing so leaves you more ends and loops in your work - you can separate them into strands or pull them out somewhat into something like a batt. This WORKS with long wool, but is different with short wool. You may have to clean some debris as you work with this, and the locks need to be pulled to offset them, and worked apart enough that they'll grab when you overlap them to merge one piece to the next. Mohair and sheep wool handle differently as locks, and mohair is more difficult to merge if using locks. Pull out very thin and tug diagonally if you want fine yarn with very little texture variation. Leave a few fine clustered locks if you want yarn with more character.
Tufts: Clumps of short wool, which can be carded, or can be spun without carding - spinning them without carding them is the old quick and dirty method. And it really is dirty, even if the wool has been washed, because wool ALWAYS has debris in it. If you are desperate to spin, though, and the equipment is too expensive, a washed fleece and a drop spindle are enough to get you started, if you don't mind learning a more inconvenient method. The trick to this one is to pull small pieces out to work with, not large ones.