Wools have short or long fiber length, crimped or not crimped strands. The wool we're using for this class is a medium-length fiber and is somewhat crimped (the more crimps, the finer the wool).
Wool is like human hair in that it has a shaft and a scale layer (called the cuticle) surrounding the shaft. Wool is unlike human hair in that the scales are distinct and stand up more. Because of this, wool feels rougher in one direction when you run your fingers over it. Sometimes wool scales are referred to as “barbs”-this is what catches and makes wool felt up when pressure and heat are applied.
Before you start spinning, take your roving (wool carded into a long, thin piece) and pull it with both hands to separate the fibers. It should pull more easily from one side than the other. Whichever side pulls more easily in your hands is the side you should pull from when spinning. Your spun yarn will be smoother, more even and less likely to bunch.
If your wool gets matted together after storage or carrying it around, take it in both hands and give it a few quick, hard jerks apart. This separates up the fibers so you can easily use it again. Do this also if the roving gets tangled into swirls of fibers. You want all the fibers to lay parallel to each other to make it easier to pull them out and spin them. Bunched-up fibers running in different directions will be harder to draw out and will produce a yarn that is lumpy.
The easiest way to start on the drop spindle is to take a foot-long piece of string and tie it to the spindle. Twist the string up around the spindle, putting a half-hitch about one inch down from the top of the spindle.
Next, take the roving and pull it apart a bit until you have a thin “tail” sticking out one side. Roll this tail out on your thigh to start the spinning (this is how they used to spin before drop spindles were invented). Lay this piece parallel to the string with a 3-4 inch overlap, and lay the roving over your left wrist (right if left-handed). Pinch the end of the string and the wool with your left thumb and forefinger. Then pull it upright and spin the spindle with your right hand. The wool should spin around the string enough to support the weight of the spindle. The spindle will fall if the string and wool are not twisted around each other.
When you spin the spindle, it does not matter if you spin it clockwise or counter-clockwise as long as you're consistent. (A “Z twist” is clockwise; an “S twist” is counter-clockwise. It is only important later on, when you ply the wool or when you weave it.)
Now comes the hard part-spinning the yarn. Where the wool comes off the roving and twists into yarn is called the “drawing triangle”. The drawing triangle is where the whole spinning process happens-keep your eyes on it and not on the spindle or the roving.
With the roving laid over your left hand, let it flow through your thumb and forefinger-hold this part of the roving very lightly. If you hold the roving tightly, the fibers will not pull out. Spin the spindle with your right hand, letting the spindle drop down as you pull the wool.
Your left hand should stay in one place holding the roving; your right should move back and forth drawing out the fibers and spinning the spindle.
The twist that you put into the yarn with the spinning of the spindle is what holds the fibers together. If there is not enough twist, the fibers will pull apart (this is where “drop” comes into it). It takes a bit of practice to get the feel of how much twist the fibers need to hold them together. Generally, a thicker bunch of fibers will take less twist and a thinner bunch of fibers will take more twist. More twist makes yarn stronger. Don't overdo it.
The twist will only travel up the yarn if the yarn is tense-stretched between your hands and the spinning spindle. When the spindle stops rotating and starts rotating backwards, pinch the bottom point of the drawing-out triangle with your left hand and spin the spindle again. Ultimately, you will be able to continue spinning without the pinching motion as you get more used to the rhythm of drawing out fibers and spinning the spindle. Another trick is to spin with the spindle between your knees-when it slows down, catch it with your knees to prevent it from spinning backwards. This helps a lot when learning and will keep you from dropping the spindle a lot as you learn the right hand motions.
As you spin, you'll want to wind the spun wool onto the spindle. To figure out if it's ready, pinch the end of the drawing out triangle with your left hand and grab the spindle with your right. Bring them close together. The wool will twist up on itself. This tells you several things-how even your spinning is (it can be surprising) and how twisted it is. If it looks twisted enough, then you can wind it on. If you want more twist, then set the spindle back down and give it a good spin. Then check again.
When it's got enough twist, undo the half-hitch at the top of the spindle. Then pull the wool away from the spindle until it's taut so you can wind it on the spindle evenly. Generally, build the wool up around the spindle whorl in a cone so the weight's all in the same place. Then whirl the yarn up the shaft, put in another half-hitch and go.
To find out how to remove your finished yarn from your spindle, ply it and get it ready for knitting or weaving, here's some further reading:
Rachel Brown: The Weaving, Spinning and Dyeing Book, ISBN #0-394-71595-0.
Bette Hochberg: Handspindles, ISBN 0-9600990-4-2. (Also Handspinner's Handbook, ISBN 0-9600990-5-0. Deals a lot w/ spinning wheels.)
Wool for this class came from Michael's craft store-appx. 2 yards for $2 (with leathers).
SCA merchants sometimes sell carded wool and spindles, along with other weaving supplies.
Spinner's Flock hosts a twice-annual Fleece Festival at Beech Middle School in Chelsea. You can buy carded wool, spindles, spinning wheels, books, dyes, etc. Information usually gets posted to the Cynnabar list.
There's always the Internet, but you don't get to feel the wool before you buy it. Happy Spinning!
Sunnifa allows unedited reprints of her articles as long as this sentence is included.
Lowenan, one of the premire local weavers.