Sunday, April 5, 2015

Spinning yarn for tapestry

My second spinning class with Maggie Casey** ended this past week. I have had more fun messing around with my spinning wheel than I thought possible. I love it enough I wouldn't miss a class for two blizzards, a long-scheduled workshop I was teaching, or for car troubles. I made it to all ten classes.

The thing is, it isn't just about the spinning. I have a long way to go to become a good spinner. I realized a few weeks in that I could MAKE YARN! The tools were right in front of me. I can combine fiber in so many ways to make exactly the yarn I want to use in my tapestry. This was a revelation.

For the last class we had to design a project. Mine will be a small piece on a Hokett loom... but with handspun. I figure I can manage to spin enough even yarn to weave a 2 inch square tapestry, right? Even if it takes half a pound of fiber. I'm on a pick and pick kick lately (some of you refer to that perhaps more correctly as half-pass) and have some new ideas related to color blending in spinning. Since I already know how to dye and a friend loaned me a drum carder, I think the options are pretty much endless. I'm just missing a set of those English combs.

Here is a little of what we did this week playing with various fibers. Maggie started us out with silk. It was good thinking on her part. Who doesn't love silk? We started with a cap. It was fascinating to hear the story of the Bombyx Mori and how silk is produced. There is a website called Worm Spit that details the way these silk moths are raised. What I didn't realize is that silk moths are domesticated. They have been so changed by cultivation that they couldn't live on their own.
Maggie separating the silk cap into layers. Each layer is one cocoon.

Silk cap. You can also buy it in "hankies"
Maggie and Kathy pull a layer of the cap off.

The silk in this preparation was not hard to spin. It wasn't even, but the staple is impossibly long, so even though I still have little control sometimes, it wasn't going to break on me.

Then we moved on to some Tussah silk. This had been cut and combed and it was fast! It seemed very hard for my beginning spinning skills. But it was lovely.
Tussah Silk
And here is what the cocoon looks like. The sticky sericin that holds it together is removed in hot water and then the cocoons are unwound onto a reel. There is a mile of silk on one cocoon.
Silk worm cocoon
Then we tried some camel mixed with silk. This went okay. The camel gave the silk a little more bite and I had an easier time spinning it.
50/50 Camel/Silk
All of that silk fiber was lovely. When we were sufficiently lulled by the mysteries of silk and how it is made and processed, Maggie pulled out the next fiber. It couldn't have been more different.

The story is still good. Flax preparation involves rotting (rhetting) the fibers and lots of abuse including the use of a medieval torture instrument, the hackle. There is an article about linen in the Twist issue of Ply magazine that talks about this abuse in great detail... in such detail that you really start to feel sorry for the plant. But then she comes back and becomes a better fiber the more abuse you give her.

This fiber did not run away from me. The staple is very long and the fibers very thick. I doubt I'll ever spin linen again, but once I got over the fact that it isn't silk, I enjoyed it.

spinning linen (flax)-- Look at me spinning with a long draw!
Then there was the cotton. What can I say about cotton except I hope never to spin it again. Maggie started out by telling us we needed to spin it long draw. Now I have had just a tiny bit of success even making the long draw method work for me, so this seemed like a tall order.

The staple is exceedingly short and I couldn't manage it. We started with some lovely processed cotton which I was mildly successful with. At least it held together long enough to wind onto the wheel.
Carded cotton
And then with a little chuckle, she handed us this.
cotton bolls
Spinning from the boll. I did it for about 2.7 seconds and then it all fell apart and I couldn't pull myself it back together. Eventually I started futzing with my wheel and hoping we'd move onto something else fast.

To make up for that misery, she ended on a Merino/Silk blend. It was absolutely lovely and I will be buying more of this fiber when my skills improve a little bit. I was able to manage the fiber nicely and my resulting bit of yarn looks pretty good!
Merino/silk blend
These spinning classes have really opened my eyes to the world of different fibers. I have to admit that I started weaving tapestry with the yarn my tapestry teacher used and haven't stopped yet. I have tried many different yarns and found others that I like quite a lot (as well as many I do not). But I didn't start to understand the subtlety of yarn until now. Not only do I now have many more options of how to blend color and make different color effects, but I have a much better understanding of important concepts like staple length, fiber content, and fiber care/cleaning.

When you look at yarn labels, generally you just see the stuff called WOOL. But there are so many different kinds of sheep and they have such different characteristics. It is a fascinating magical black hole that I have fallen down.

I'll be experimenting with the drum carder and some ways of making tapestry yarns next. I don't expect great things from my ability to make an even yarn, but hopefully I can make something consistent enough to test on the loom... at least on a little lap loom.

When does the next class start Maggie?
Production of silk kills the silkworm. In Korea, they make use of those worms too! Snack food.

**Maggie Casey is a celebrated spinning teacher and co-owner of Shuttles, Spindles, and Skeins in Boulder, CO. She teaches workshops all over the country though I recommend coming to Colorado. She is the author of Start Spinning: Everything you need to know to make great yarn.


  1. Rebecca, I have a pair of Ashford carders you can if you'd like them....hardly been used. Sherry

  2. I'm a spinner that's going to take her first tapestry class in September (with you). I can't wait to spin my own yarn for weaving!

    1. Yay! You can advise me on making tapestry yarn then!

  3. Trish at Tangled ThreadsApril 5, 2015 at 6:06 PM

    On a different but related comment (related to pick and pick), Melek on the Ravelry site mentioned that what we call pick and pick in English in Norway is called Hags Teeth. Much more evocative, I think. BTW, lots of fun to hear about your spinning adventures. Thanks for the update.

  4. I have been thinking for months about taking your online class but want to use my own handspun (it's not all the same wpi...sometimes it's just funky and fun). I just wasn't sure if I could do that with the class exercises. Maybe I should reconsider!

    1. I will definitely be experimenting with using handspun for tapestry in the near future, so I'll be right there with you! It is a challenge with tapestry to get differently sized yarns to play nicely, but especially if you're not overly concerned about having the perfectly flat textile with square edges, handspun is an option.

  5. I started out as a spinner and have piles of unspun fleeces. Unfortunately I then discovered weaving and I am realizing I just don't have time to do both... I think weaving is going to win. But I'm keeping the wheel, for plying and for fun.

  6. I'm so happy I read this. I've started weaving this past year and was thinking of spinning some of my own yarn. I think the only way to spin your own yarn and have time to weave with it is to use an e-spinner. I have no idea how good the e-spinners are that I've seen on line.


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