Thursday, October 23, 2014

Emily Spiegelman: It’s Not Pretty But It’s Yarn

Falling in love with a new skill sometimes means going back to basics.

The tools of the trade: spindle, niddy-noddy, and roving
The day The Spinner’s Book of Fleece by Beth Smith arrived on my desk, I was goner. I’m a knitter and I love yarns and I think sheep are pretty great. But I’d never really contemplated the art of spinning or thought much about how it could be the magical missing link between my love of those other things.

The trouble for me was that Beth’s book is really for wheel spinners, and with no spinning experience of my own to speak of, the idea of a wheel seemed ridiculous. Cost aside, I know nothing about a wheel’s mechanics or how to set one up for spinning, let alone whether I’d be able to master the simultaneous hand-foot coordination wheel spinning requires. Instead, I decided to begin at the beginning and take spinning back to its most pared-down form: the drop spindle.

On an usually warm September Saturday, eight of us gathered in a classroom at WEBS Yarn Store, our wooden spindles and 6-ounce balls of mixed Bluefaced Leicester (BFL) roving laid neatly at our feet. Our teacher for the day was Ashley Flagg, whose own spinning roots run deep, as a descendant of Priscilla Mullins, the spinner immortalized in the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem “The Courtship of Miles Standish.” When a friend introduced Ashley to drop spindling in 2006, in a moment of deep genetic memory, her fingers knew exactly how to move.

Most of us in the classroom probably wouldn’t be that lucky, Ashley warned, even if we were working with a tool whose history in human hands is ancient. “I’ll invite you now to excuse yourself from the concept of perfection,” she said, and with that, we dove into seven straight hours of work.

First, there was terminology to learn: spinning worsted versus spinning woolen, the critical importance of balancing crimps per inch and twists per inch, the angle of twist (yes, there’s an app for that), and the role of micron count in determining softness of a fiber against the skin. With new wisdom swimming untethered in our heads, we took up our spindles and roving.

Aiming for quantity versus quality of yarn, we pre-drafted (or stretched out) long segments of our BFL roving. Ashley gave each of us a short section of alpaca to work with, too, so that we might get a sense of the difference between the two fibers (verdict: alpaca, lovely and soft, with ample air between the fibers, is slippery in the hands of a beginner—more challenging than BFL).
Pre-drafted roving, reading for spinning
We spent as much time spinning as possible. We spun and “parked” our spindles between our knees, we tugged and pulled our pre-drafted fibers as thin as we dared. All of us struggled with issues of too much twist, breaks in our roving from drafting too thin, and general inconsistency in the thickness or thinness of our yarns. The room was hot and our hands were sweaty. We made our beautiful BFL awfully frizzy.

At the end of the day, I came home with a small skein of my very own yarn. It isn’t what I’d call pretty, and it isn’t something I’d even knit with—chunky and almost completely unspun in spots while thin as dental floss in others.
It’s not pretty but it’s yarn.
But that night, my fingertips already sore, I picked up some more roving and my spindle and started again. I could see a difference. I already had a better sense of how thin I could draft before the fibers broke, and how to make the most of the twist I have without overdoing it. It’s still not beautiful yarn, but I think it’s already more consistent. I’m a long way from being ready to spin at speed but I have a much deeper appreciation for what goes into creating yarn I choose for a project, whether I’m buying it off the shelf or spinning it myself. Spinning is, as Ashley said, a universe that has its own rhythms in the journey, and the journey will take years. I’ve got the bug, for sure.

Watch Ashley in drop-spindle action in this video from WEBS:

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