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Beyond Your Default Spin-along Day 4
October 8, 2020
Welcome to Day 4 of the Spin-along!
Today we’ll cover: Fiber Prep
Fiber gets prepared in different ways for handspinning. Once you understand these differences, whether you’re buying commercially prepared fiber or prepping your own, you’ll have even more tools to break out of your default box.
The most common commercial preps are roving, which gets carded, and top, which gets combed.
Imagine you’ve woken up with bedhead and you don’t want to leave the house looking like that. Brush your hair, and you’ll “organize” it. Comb it, and you’ll align the hairs. (There’s a reason your stylist combs rather than brushing before the scissors come out.)
Sheep never fix their hair and they have no stylists. The shearer just shaves them and moves on to the next critter. A sheared fleece has stored up about a year’s worth of bedhead. That fleece has to be scoured (washed to remove the lanolin) and floofed before we can spin it. The floofing process is called fiber prep, whether it’s done at a commercial mill on big machines or in someone’s home with studio tools.
Top is a very consistent preparation. All the fibers are aligned and they’re roughly equal in length, because the short bits got combed out. Once those parallel fibers start moving, they will slide past each other easily. However, it’s a little harder to draft commercial top because it’s so compressed and the alignment allows twist to build up quickly.
In roving, the fibers are carded; they crisscross and can vary in length. There’s more air in a carded prep, so it’s very easy to draft. It takes a while for twist to build up. Most spinning teachers start their students with roving rather than top.
You may run across other names for fiber preps, especially the preps made with hand tools, but it all really boils down to these two methods. If the name doesn’t tell you how it was prepped, look at the fiber. When they look perfectly parallel and tidy, it’s a combed preparation. When fibers look more random, or even kind of messy, it’s carded.*
* You can get another clue from the prep’s width and diameter. In the package or braid, commercial top seems to be round and very dense, like large-diameter spaghetti. But if you un-package it and unfold it, you’ll see a wide, flat noodle like linguine. In contrast, commercial roving isn’t so dense and it’s usually much smaller in diameter (think angel hair pasta). The big roving exception: batts—those fluffy, very wide clouds of fiber that come from commercial-level or studio-sized drum carders. Batts can be separated into narrower strips and/or multiple layers, like a biscuit. We won’t cover batts here; you’ll find excellent resources online.
New spinners generally have an easier time working with carded roving, but if you’re a newbie and you’ve started collecting braids of hand-dyed top, don’t despair—Stephanie’s here to help! She’ll also give you some ideas for spinning with colors
Getting Ready to Spin Top
Stephanie’s most important tip for spinning top: Hold your hands a little farther apart as you’re drafting. If you’re holding the same bit of fiber at both ends, it won’t draft at all. And keep those hands relaxed—a death grip will not help you draft.
It’s also helpful to hold a small fiber supply—when the supply in your “fiber” hand is too big, the top can start to shed.
For space-dyed top, your color management choices will help you pare down that fiber supply. Decide how you want the colors to come out.
- For long runs of color, spin across the tip of the braid: unwind it and draft across its entire width. It’s easier to manage this wide fiber supply if you rip it crosswise into shorter sections. Look at the color sequence and figure out where it repeats. Open out the fiber here and rip off this section, then work your way down the length of the braid before you start spinning. Be aware that spinning across the tip can be challenging, because the fiber supply is so wide. It’s all too easy to accidentally go down the length of the strip, instead of working across its width. You may also pull out more fiber than you intended as you figure out how to work your hands across rather than down. In other words, if you want to break out of your default box, this is an easy way to make fatter yarn!
- For short runs of color, you can rip the braid crosswise (into repeats of the color sequence) and then lengthwise. Unfold the fiber to its full width, and you’ll see one or two natural separations running down its length. Separate the wide strip of top into one or more narrower strips. The more strips you make, the shorter your color runs will be.
Finally, fluff out the top to make drafting easier. Use the same process whether you’re working with wide or narrow strips: start at one end of a strip and grab a small section with both hands. Pop the fiber open lengthwise. Slide your hands a few a few inches down the strip and repeat, until you’ve worked the full length of the strip. This technique introduces some air and works especially well with silk and silk blends.
Blending Top into Roving
If you don’t feel ready for combed top, or if you want to change up the colors, you can turn top into roving with hand cards, a blending board, or a drum carder. Stephanie demonstrates with our Mini Carders on a section of the Rocky Mountain Meadow top.
- She wants to tone down the bright yellow-green, so she rips off the pink sections and purple sections, setting them aside. This leaves her with short segments of mostly yellow-green, mostly dark green, and mostly bright blue, with their neighboring colors showing up at the ends.
- One carder lies flat on her lap, with the teeth up. She charges the card—yes, that’s what it’s called, though you might be reminded of shopping with a credit card! In charging, you place thin layers of fiber on the carder’s teeth. Here Stephanie layers colors; you can also card undyed top or even blend different fibers with this method. She starts at the blue end of the fiber strip, then turns it around to the pink-tipped lime green end, then adds a third layer with the colors in the middle.
- Now she blends the colors. Stephanie’s style of hand carding is just one of many. The charged card lies on her lap, held in place with the left hand. She lifts the empty card with her right hand and brushes it lightly from the bottom edge of the charged card, repeating until the charged card becomes empty. Then she reverses the cards and repeats until she likes the resulting colors. The yellow-green blended with blue becomes less yellow and more green.
- Finally, Stephanie rolls the fiber up and off the full card, like a jelly roll or a cigar. This is called a rolag, though you’ll also see the terms fauxlag and puni (though technically a puni is made of cotton or another short-staple fiber).
Spinning Worsted & Woolen
Spinning terms can get confusing, especially if you’re familiar with yarn from other crafts. For spinners, worsted yarn does not have to be worsted-weight; it can be any weight. In this context, “worsted” refers to the fiber prep method and the drafting style. For spinners, woolen yarn does not have to be made from wool—again, “woolen” refers to the fiber prep method and the drafting style. We’ll go into more depth on Day 5 when we talk about drafting.
Stephanie spins worsted and woolen yarns, making plyback samples to show the difference.
- When she spins combed top, the worsted yarn is smooth, lustrous, and compressed because the fibers were aligned and there’s little air between them. It’s also durable, especially when plied.
- When she spins roving or carded rolags, the woolen yarn is fuzzy, matte, and puffy—the fibers were not aligned and carding introduced lots of air into the fiber supply. This yarn will be warmer and lighter in weight but not as durable as yarn spun from top.
Fiber Prep & Your Default Yarn
Change your default yarn with fiber prep and wheel adjustments. Stephanie demonstrates with her default draft, the short forward draw, treadling at the same speed she always uses.
Today, she’s making a skinnier yarn than her default. She stripped the combed top into very narrow strips*, moved to the small groove on the whorl, and decreased tension. Now the flyer spins faster and there’s enough time for twist to build up before her yarn winds onto the bobbin.
* If you’re struggling to spin fine yarns, narrow strips can help because they limit the fiber supply. They also put an automatic limit on the yarn’s diameter. You can always spin a yarn finer than the strip. You cannot spin a yarn fatter than the strip. But as your spinning skills improve, stop relying on strip size to control yarn diameter. Instead, train your hands to draft consistently—this will give you more spinning options, whether you’re spinning skinny or fat yarns.
- Analyze some spinning fiber from your stash, or go online to hunt for photos. It’s easiest to start with undyed fiber or lighter colors and work up to darker colors. Is it combed or carded?
- Analyze the fiber you’ve been using for this SAL. If you’ve been spinning top, look for some roving or card some rolags. If you’ve been spinning roving, try to find some top.
- Spin your default yarn from combed top, if you have some. Make a plyback sample and measure its wpi.
- Spin your default yarn from carded fiber, if you have some. Make a plyback sample and measure its wpi.
Extra credit: Use today’s practice assignments to try out your note-taking system. Some spinners store unspun fiber samples with their notes, along with their plyback samples. Adapt your system as needed so you’ve got all the info necessary, in a format that works for you.
See you tomorrow for our final day of the spin-along!