Class Notes: Plying with a Handspindle

Rita_and_peWhen I first started spinning just about two years ago, I figured that spindle spinning was the way to go since it didn’t take much room and the investment was minimal compared to a wheel. Well, one thing led to another and I ended up throwing caution to the wind and getting a wheel.  Sadly, I really haven’t used my spindles much since.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy using my spindles, it just that when I’m home I almost feel obliged to use my wheel and when I’m away, I knit. So with that being said, my interest in hand spindles was rekindled in Rita’s last class on plying with a handspindle.

Rita started off the class by demonstrating the usual way to ply from both ends of center-pull ball. She recommended holding the ball on one thumb to help control the tension of each strand. This wasn’t a new technique for me so I dove in and started plying. It didn’t take long for me to start fumbling with the spindle and ball until the tension between the singles got uneven and I ended up with a tangled mess instead of a nicely plied yarn. Rita was quick to point out that I had just encountered one of the pit falls of center-pull balls. Of course, she had a solution.

Felt_ball_1_1Rita then  introduced us to what she calls a “ply ball”.  It’s a simple felt ball made out of a roving strip that has been wound into a ball and held together with a piece of yarn (see picture on the left). The ends of the yarn are tucked into the ball using a tapestry needle and the ball is felted in a washing machine.

Felt_ball_3After showing us the ply ball, Rita took one of her center-pull balls out and started wrapping the ply ball with the yarn from each end of the center-pull ball.  Once all the yarn from the center-pull ball was transferred to the ply ball, she easily plied from the felt ball without unevenly tangling the singles. She admitted that this technique introduced an additional step in the plying process but thought the benefit gained from being able to easily control live singles outweighed the additional time. It works great for me, since it’s easy to focus on one thing at a time; first
winding two (or three) singles onto the felt ball and then on plying.

Spindle_skeinsJust think of all the  plying possibilities. Instead of wrapping the felt ball with two ends of a center-pull ball,  three ends of three separate balls can be wrapped around it to make a three ply. Rita went one step further and also demonstrated how this simple felt ball made the Navajo three-ply technique quite easy to do from a spindle, and arguable easier than with a wheel.

The small skeins on the left were made using some of these plying techniques. The one on the left is a two ply and the one on the right is a three ply (from three balls).  By the way, I was using Bluefaced Leicester roving which was a dream to spin.

To end the class, Rita  mentioned that the felt ball can be used to store a larger amount of spun singles than will fit on a spindle. When the spindle is full transfer it to the felt ball. If it is  already wrapped with a single, just join the single from the spindle to the one on the felt ball (like a join when spinning) before winding on.

Class Notes: Mastering Thickness

Rita’s third class expanded on ideas presented in the first two classes,  with extra emphasis on  mastering the ability to create yarn of any thickness.  She started the class by pointing out that,  contrary to what we might normally hear,  any fiber can be  spun thick or thin  –  it just takes practice and determination.

The key to spinning thicker yarns is to be aware that producing thick yarn means using lots of fiber quickly. Just as in previous classes, she showed us how to be aware of our hand movements and our treadling speed. To spin thicker yarn, we needed to allow more fiber into the draft zone with our front hand and feed the twisted yarn into the orifice much more quickly than if we were spinning thin yarn. Now that I stop and think about spinning thick yarn, It’s much harder to produce a thick consistent yarn because hand movements must be quick. Predrafting fiber well also helps make things go smoother.

Mast_thick_sticks To practice spinning thick yarns,  she had us spin fiber into a single thread at our “normal” thickness. Once we had several yards of this thickness, she asked us to create and attach three samples of this yarn to a stick.  My “normal” thickness is the first stick which is marked 25 at the top.  The 25 indicates the number of single thread wraps per inch. The single thread is the first sample at the top of the stick and is wrapped around a 1 inch computer label (see previous class notes on detail on wraps per inch). The next two samples are a two and three ply yarn plied from part of the single thread.

Once we established our normal thickness she had us make two more samples but this time our singles were to be incrementally larger. The reason she had us make both a two and three ply sample was to demonstrate that the three ply yarn wasn’t really that much thicker than the two ply yarn. If you want thicker yarn it’s better to start with thicker singles rather than plying several small singles together. After all, thin singles take much more time to spin.

During our spinning practice someone brought up the technique of spinning from the fold. I’ve tried this a few times but haven’t been too successful with it since it quite awkward for me to do. Well, Rita has a bit of a twist on this technique.

To spin from the fold, pull lengths of fiber from the roving and organize them into a neat pile on the palm of your hand. Fold the pile in half and hold it between your thumb and index finger, with the folded side up.  Position the hand that’s holding the fiber between the fingers  so that the end is parallel to the orifice and start to spin from the tip of the fold.  This way of spinning from the fold was new to me.  When I’ve seen this demonstrated in the past the spinner would fold the fiber around their index finger and spin from the tip of the finger. Rita’s way seems to be a much easier way to keep the fibers organized.

Class Notes: How to Match a Yarn

So you’ve got a pattern that calls for a certain yarn, but you’d really like to use a handspun yarn. How do you go about spinning a yarn that can be substituted for the one called for listed in the pattern? Rita answered this question in her Friday afternoon class.

When matching a yarn Rita says you should first consider the fiber. For the best results it’s a good idea to use the same type of fiber. So, if the yarn you’re trying to match is made of alpaca then use alpaca.  Fibers such as alpaca are much more inelastic than wool and thus will result in a fabric that drapes differently.  She also pointed out that crimp plays a key factor in how elastic a wool is.  For instance, Lincoln has much less crimp than merino. I’ve been aware of this “crimp” factor for awhile but I’ve been using commercial top (mostly Ashland Bay merino) which doesn’t appear to have any crimp. Well, Rita has a great solution for figuring out crimp in commercial top. Just carefully wash a sample and let it dry. The crimp should be  apparent after the sample has dried.

wpiAfter discussing fiber qualities, Rita  showed us how to measure yarn by counting “wraps per inch”.  She first created a measuring tool by taking a flat craft stick and wrapping a 1 inch tall computer address label around the stick to mark off a one inch.  She then spun some fiber into several yards of a single thread and removed this thread from her bobbin by wrapping the end  around the computer label on the stick, starting at one end and counting each wrap until the label was completely covered and was not longer visible. She then taped the ends of the thread to the back and marked the number of wraps per inch on the stick. She had us do the same, aiming for 20 wraps per inch. You can see my effort in the photo on the right (click on the photo for a better view). It’s the top one. As you can see, I didn’t do such a good job of covering the first label. We also practiced wrapping some 2 ply yarn (the bottom stick).

After finishing the WPI exercise, Rita explained that this method of measuring yarn can be used for singles and inelastic plied yarns (like alpaca) but that it’s not really all that accurate for puffy, elastic yarns. She pointed out that there’s no standard way to wrap yarns so two people can come up with different counts. As she discussed WPI, she also mentioned that gadgets such as the  spinners control card are also an arbitrary way of measuring yarn since it can be difficult to determine the width of a thread by matching it to a line on a gauge. Really, there’s no one quick way to accurately measure yarn. When matching a yarn, various attributes of the yarn must be considered. Rita has several tricks to fully investigate several attributes.

Loop TechiqueTo compare the thickness of two yarns Rita uses an old weaver’s trick. Take a piece of the  “goal” yarn and fold it in half. Now take a piece of a plied sample and  thread it through the loop so that the two yarns are connected loop to loop. Put tension on both ends  and then glide your fingers over each yarn, rolling it between your fingers without looking. You should be able to feel any difference in thickness.

I tried this loop techique  by putting a knot in one of the yarns and then hooking that yarn onto a knob on my wheel. I then linked the second yarn into the first and pulled tight with one hand while I felt the yarns with the other. It’s really amazing how well this works. As you can see from the photo on the left that Rita had us try this technique with several types of yarn and tape our samples to a card.

After comparing the thickness of two yarns,  she had us determine whether the twist in our plied samples matched our goal yarn by holding both yarns side by side under tension. Tension helps to even out the yarns so the twist in each yarn can be easily compared to determine if one has more or less twist than the other.  If the bumps created by plying line up, than each yarn has the same twist.

Next, to see if two yarns matched in elasticity, Rita cut a piece of each yarn the same length and then stretched each one, noting how far each could stretch. If both stretched to the same length then each proably had the same elasticity. To take this one step further, she advised washing and drying both samples to see if they stayed the same length.

The final and ultimate test is to spin and ply a sample long enough to knit a swatch. She showed us one of her swatches which was knit in stripes that alternated between a ” goal” yarn and a sample yarn.  She mentioned that if the two yarns matched well then we shouldn’t be able to feel a noticeable difference between the stripes.

For more information on this topic, see  “An Easy & Accurate Way to Compare Yarns” by Rita Buchanan in Spin-Off , Summer 1999.

Class Notes: Nice Soft Yarns

The NWRSA conference offered two days worth of classes by various instructors such as Judith MacKenzie McCuin, Myrna Stahman and others. While I would have also like to attend many other classes, I felt like this might be my only chance to take classes from Rita Buchanan, who is now retired. During the past six months I’ve been collecting past issues of Spin Off magazine and always find her articles to be some of the most detailed and helpful. I realized after talking with many of the other attendees that I was very lucky to get into all four  of her classes since there was a limit of 20 students for each class.

Rita BuchananOn Friday,  I was so anxious to get to class and set up that I arrived 1/2 hour early and found Rita setting up her samples. Since on other students had yet arrived this gave me a chance to let her know how helpful and inspiring I’ve found her articles. She was quite pleased to get this feedback and mentioned that writing is so different than teaching since there is no immediate feedback from readers. I also mentioned that I’d sent Amy (the current editor of Spin Off) an e-mail suggesting that they compile Rita’s articles into a book. She seemed glad to hear the articles have been so helpful but that she’s now retired and no longer wants to write. Compiling articles might seem easy but since her thoughts and ideas have evolved over time, she would need to edit the content. This response makes sense. I could tell after reading all of her articles that her ideas have indeed changed over time, i.g. techniques for measuring yarns, and sympathize with her desire to concentrate on the things she loves to do.

One thing I didn’t get around to asking, was if she is still actively teaching. I would guess that she probably doesn’t and might have taught at this conference as a favor to a friend when Norman Kennedy had to cancel due to health concerns.

This  first class was called, Nice Soft Yarns. Rita kicked it off by having us treadle our wheels at our normal pace for one minute, counting each rotation. After the minute was up she had each of us reveal our counts. Mine was within range of most people – 55. She then had us treadle fast for 30 seconds. I got 48 that time. She has done this at lots of classes and said that west coast spinners are pretty relaxed compared to folks on the east coast.

The goal of this exercise was to get us thinking about the fact that we control twist and that the movement of our feet is one of several factors that can help us produce the type of yarn that we want. One of the other factors is how much yarn is feed into the orifice at one time s0 she next  had us practicing hand movements while she  treadled her wheel.  This reminded me of something a sports coach would do, essentially, going through our movements without actually spinning. Our hand movements were mimicking what most people call a short draw.

After getting us to focus on our movements, she passed out pencil roving from Fingerlakes Woolen Mill and a couple of index cards with holes punched down one side.  She wanted us to create plied samples from the finger roving by spinning it without drafting and staying conscious of three factors as we worked. First we needed to keep our drive ratio constant by not changing the whorl. Second, we should try to keep the maximum distance between our two hands the same (about three inches which is the same length of an index card). Third, treadle the same amount of times for each cycle of hand movements that let twist into the fiber.

Nice soft yarns - samplesOnce we got comfortable spinning in this mode, we stopped and made a 2-ply sample by letting the single twist back on themselves. My first yarn sample was done with four treadles per 3 inches of  feed, using the outer ring of my slow whorl (the card in the upper left side of the picture). We attached the sample yarn to a card and noted the various factors used.  Next we were asked to make more samples but change the number of treadles. Each yarn sample was labeled with the number of treadles. By completing several samples and changing only one factor we could plainly see the results. A greater number of treadles produced a dense rigid yarn while fewer treadles create a soft puffy yarn. We continued to make another card full of samples (the card in the lower right side of the picture) but this time we changed one of the other factors. I choose to change my whorl. To get a closer look at my samples, click on the picture and a closer view should pop-up.

Once we were finished making our samples, Rita explained that we can use this method to help figure out what type of yarn we would like to make. She then pulled out some samples of items that she had made with soft yarns and debunked some of the common myths about soft yarns. She said that a single only needs enough twist to keep it from breaking as it is unwound  from the bobbin.  But keep in mind that short fibers and thin yarns usually need more twist. Also don’t judge a yarn by it’s twist. Tightly twisted yarns can make great looking skeins but produce an  undesirably stiff knitted fabric.

For more detailed information on this topic, see “Mastering Twist” by Rita Buchanan, pages 34 -43 in Spin-Off Magazine, Winter 1997.