Cotton: back to square one

Judith’s last class at the Madrona Fiber Arts Winter Retreat was called, “Summer Breeze: Spinning Cotton for a Summer Top”. Here’s the Description straight from the website

Thinking that cotton is hard to spin? Think again!
Judith guarantees that this will be a breeze! You will spin a wonderful
cotton novelty yarn and the blues about spinning cotton will vanish.
Come and join the fun and learn Judith’s secrets!  All the cotton fiber
needed for a summer top and pattern are supplied.  You can’t miss!


Sounds easy, right? Although Judith never  said out right that spinning cotton was difficult, it didn’t take long to figure that out.

This combed cotton top required learning a spinning technique that I’m not familiar  with doing – long draw. The idea is to let twist into the fiber supply while pulling the hand with the fiber supply away from the wheel. The other hand holds the spun cotton and pinches out any slubs that happen to form. Since  cotton has very short fibers it  needs a lot of twist to make a sturdy yarn. To put lots of twist into our spinning Judith had us put on our smallest whorl and set the drive band tension so that the intake was very light; similar to what we did for spinning lace and cashmere.

After practicing with a natural brown she handout some cotton colored light blue by bits of recycled demin mixed into it. That’s what’s on the bobbin in the top of the picture. It didn’t seem to go much easier than the brown. While the long draw is a satisfying graceful and sweeping technique, I seemed to always get large slubs as twist from the wheel first entered the fiber supply. As I pulled back with the fiber supply, the yarn would get thinner and thinner until I let it wind onto the bobbin. Then it would repeat all over again, a slub of fiber that progressively got thinner until it was wound back onto the bobbin.

I almost felt as helpless as when I first tried to spin wool on a wheel.

This week I plied the rest of the blue which I didn’t manage to finished during class. I also practiced spinning some white fiber that Judith sent home with us.


You can see a bit of progress being made. The mix skein on the left is my first attempt and the white on the right is what I did this week.

I still have a whole bag of white cotton that Judith sent home with us along with a pattern for a knitted cotton top. At this point I need much more practice before attempting to spin for a knitting project. To tell you the truth, I’m currently not all that interested in spinning cotton. Not to say it was a bad class, because some of the skills she had been teaching earlier in the week really started to click, but knitting my hand spun cotton just doesn’t appeal to me.

There’s two bits of info in my notes that I should share.

1. To finished the plied skein, boil it with a detergent like Tide. Change the water several times until the water is clear. Colored cotton will get darker each time you wash it.

2. Judith got this cotton from Little Barn.

These days I’ve been thinking about knee-high socks and mittens. Socks for me and convertible mittens for my husband.

He wants convertible mittens with a subtle design around the hand so I’ve been looking around.

At the same time I’m also looking for unique knee-high sock designs. A few weeks ago I started my “Socks that Rock” Fair Isle socks but then got to thinking – what if I make them knee-highs. How would I increase/decrease while knitting the leg and keep design repeat correct.

So, while surfing the web for more info on these two subjects, I came across Catherine Devine‘s gallery of socks and small knits. I especially like the long spiral socks.

Spinning Cashmere

Last weekend I finished plying the singles from Judith’s half day class on spinning cashmere and here they are.


We started with a light brown 17 micron cashmere (at the bottom) and continued across a small spectrum of cashmere blends.

The spinning technique for cashmere is similar to lace in that the tension should be light and the whorl should be small so that lots of twist gets into the yarn.

It was interesting to hear Judith explain that cashmere isn’t a breed of goat but rather a set of certain characteristic of fine goat hair.  The 17 micron fiber that we started with was very soft compared to fine merino but not as fine as the white 16 micron cashmere that we worked with next. While the white fiber was so much finer and a bit tricky to spin, I enjoyed it much more than the 17 micron. The 17 micron fiber had bits of “scurf” that look like dandruff – yuck. Judith says it’s caused by a disease that goats get but isn’t harmful to humans. If, in the future I decide to buy cashmere for a project, I’ll be sure to check for scurf.

After spinning pure cashmere we were given samples of cashmere blends from combed tops. After spinning the pure cashmere the merino and cashmere blends were so much easier to spin; the merino seemed to give the top a bit of grip. The silk and cashmere blend didn’t seem all that hard to spin although not quite as easy as the merino. As you can see, I twisted the heck out of it and it seemed to respond well to all that twist.

When blending silk and cashmere Judith suggested to first cut the silk fiber to the same length as the cashmere so that it blends well. She likes to use cotton cards to “brush” the fibers together, letting them fall a bit off the tips of one of the cards. She then spins straight from the card.

If you ever get a chance to take this class I highly recommend it. While it was challenging, it was also very interesting to try a variety of fibers that were new to me.

Estonian Lace with Judith and Nancy


What a great opportunity! Two wonderful teachers teaming up to teach a two day class about Estonian Lace.

Nancy Bush started off the class with a brief slide show of pictures that she had take during her trips to Estonia, giving us the history behind Estonian Lace. Long story short, the women of Haapsalu* started knitting lace shawls in the the 19th century to sell to tourist visiting the resort town. During the introduction I could feel her excitement for this country, it’s people and it’s crafts, so I asked how she became drawn to it. While researching ethnic knitting she came across some pictures of Estonian costumes and knew she had to visit. On her first trip to Estonia she instantly feel in love with it and has gone back several times to do more research.

After the slide show Judith took over and got us started spinning Corriedale top as a warm up. As we spun this rather course top, Nancy and Judith mentioned that Estonia really doesn’t have a sheep raising tradition so the yarn that the lace knitters use comes from countries that surround Estonia. Nancy mentioned that these days it’s hard to find a light-weight yarn to reproduce the lace shawls from the last century. Judith says that commercial mills are not able to spin very fine wool, at least not the type that was used in Estonia. Nancy also mentioned that she gave showed them some merino wool to use for lace knitting and they wouldn’t believe it was wool. Apparently, the softness of the wool threw them off.

After warming up Corriedale top, Judith brought out mill prepared Rambouillet that I believe had been combed. Rambouillet is a breed of sheep that originated from Spanish Merino sheep in the late 18th century. Like merino, this breed produces very fine fibers that are well suited for lace spinning.
Although I haven’t spun much fine weight yarn, I do find that spinning lace isn’t all that difficult if you use a fine wool, such as Merino or Rambouillet, that’s been well prepared and combed.

The best technique for spinning fine yarn is the worsted method; letting no twisting into the fiber supply.  Judith had us using our smallest whorl and setting our drive band tension very low. essentially no pull from the uptake of the bobbin. She suggested that if our wheel came with a Scotch tension option, then we should use it for better control. She also mentioned that a thinner drive band is better for spinning lace but I can’t remember why.

Madrona_2006_estonia_lace_0We spent most of  morning on the first day spinning our  Rambouillet and getting tips from Judith.  The class  had 30 students  so it  took a while for  her to make  the rounds. This is what I  enjoy about  Judith’s teaching style. No matter how  many students there are, she  always makes a point of  catching up with each person to  see  how they are doing. If a student is having trouble  with their  wheel,  she knows how to fix it and will get the spinner back on the right track.

The next morning Judith demonstrated how to ply (see photo on the right). Her left hand is holding two singles almost the same way a knitter will hold two strands of yarn while doing a long-tail cast-on. The trick is to keep this arm stretched out from the orifice and not to let go. She warned that if a free hand is needed to answer the phone or do something else while plying then let go of the threads in you right hand. The fingers on the right hand are used to guide the threads into the orifice. The middle finger is placed between the two threads and the index finger works with the thumb to pinch out any slubs. Notice that she’s plying from a lazy Kate that’s holding two very small bobbins. She likes to wind her threads onto weaving bobbins and alternate between several to get a more consistent yarn.


Since were probably wouldn’t have spun enough yarn to knit samples in the afternoon, Judith gave us all a small ball of hand spun yarn to start our knitting. Here’s a picture of that yarn (left).

During the afternoon, Nancy brought out her collection of lace shawls and explained how she’s working with several Estonian women to document Estonian lace in a forthcoming book.  She mentioned that each trip seems to reveal one more tidbit of information that she’s surprised didn’t come up on a previously.

After getting a glimpse of the possibilities, Nancy had us start on samplers of several common Estonian patterns. I managed to only finish one called “vaosabakiri” (peacock) before moving on to the Lily of the Valley Estonian Lace Sampler.
Both were knit with the yarn supplied by Judith.

I finished spinning the Rambouillet the week after class and have yet to knit any thing with it. I’m not sure if there’s enough to make a scarf or perhaps I’ll knit more of the sample patterns that Nancy gave us. The picture below shows my skeins and for a comparison, includes a piece of Cascade 220 at the bottom.


*For further information about check out Nancy’s article, ” The Lace Knitting of Haapsalu”, PieceWork – Jul/Aug 2005

More on the Winter Retreat


I came back from the winter retreat with lots of ideas, fiber and the flu.

Yesterday, while recovering in bed, I managed to knit up a swatch from one of the sample skeins that I created in Deb Menz’s class. Just in case you’re wondering, the swatch was knitted from the third skein (from the left).  I’ve got to admit, the swatch turned out much nicer than anticipated. During the class I was having a difficult time trying to imagine what my yarn would eventually look like. Although it’s really beautiful I don’t think I’ll run out and buy a $500  drum carder. Hopefully I can get similar effects with hand cards or mini-combs.

… And speaking of mini-combs, here’s Judith MacKenzie McCuin demonstrating how lash multi-colored Lincoln locks onto mini-combs.

Judith_mackenzie_mccuinThis photo was taken during her class called “Three Bags Full: Spinning for 3 different types of yarn”.

We spent the whole morning spinning her wonderful Rambouillet top into a very fine lace weight yarn. In the afternoon we sampled some Lincoln, and possibly some other fibers. Honestly, the second half of this class went so fast that I don’t remember everything we did.

Judith is a wonderful teacher and I would highly recommend any of her classes.  Not only did she supply us with a multitude of  fiber samples to enjoy, but she also found time to talk to each student and critique our spinning styles and wheels.

After her discussion on worsted spinning techniques, I found out that I’m should probably switch hands (in snowboarding terms, I’m goofy-handed).  So, since I’m right handed, I should have my right hand pinching the twisted strand and the left hand holding the fiber bundle. She swears that the dominate hand should be forward, but understands that it might be difficult to switch.  I tried very hard to switch during class but I’m still not completely convinced that I can.

I also took one of her other classes called, “The Great Sock Caper: Hand-spun yarn for hand-knit socks”. This was another wonderful class where she taught us to create three ply, four ply and cabled yarns.

She started us out with three pieces of merino top, each a different color, and  instructed us to hold all three in our fiber hand while we consecutively spinning from each one. We were also told not allowed to strip or draft any of the fiber! Of course, we all asked why she was so adamant on this point.  Her response was, that stripping and/or draft of the fibers will get them out of alignment and thus we wouldn’t be able to achieve a truly worsted yarn.  I believe she mentioned or at least implied that if you want durable socks only worsted yarn will do.

I found it entirely too difficult to manage three pieces of top at once and could only manage to two. After we struggled a bit, she pulled out the mini-combs and showed how this can easily be done right off a comb. I did indeed find  spinning three  colors off one comb much easier although, as Judy would say, my yarn ended up potage de canard (duck soup).

In the sock class we not only talked about spinning but she also went into great detail on how to get a good fit. I even modeled a recently finished pair of crew socks, hoping to understand why they tend to bulge above the ankles. The answer was simple; the top of the cuff needs to be bigger than the circumference of my ankles.  I clearly need to add decorative increases so my socks can fit my rather large calf.

Now on an entirely different subject. I caught a glimpse of a niddy noddy that I’d love to have but fear is no longer being made. The owner kindly allowed me to take a picture.


Although it is really simple design, I think it’s much more functional than any other niddy noddy that I have found to date. Why?  Well, for one simple reason; the cross bars can be easily removed.

I always seem to wind my yarn on tight and have a heck of a time getting it off.  If I only had one of these ….

Oh, I just love coming across interesting spinning tools.