Spinning for consistency

I’ve been meaning to write a little bit about how to spin consistent yarn. As most of you know, I’m not a fan of lumpy bumpy novelty yarn. I like symmetry, I like smooth yarns with minimal pilling, and I take perverse pride in producing yarns that look like they are machine spun.

You’ve seen me reverse engineer yarn to match the gauge of a knitting pattern. You’ve also read about how I was able to achieve nearly identical yardage-per-weight of a commercial yarn even when I used different fiber content and a different number of plies. Neat tricks, right? Well, it’s pretty easy to do – once you figure out what kind of yarn you need for a project (sample! sample! sample! And again, I say sample!), the rest comes down to 1 question: Can you consistently spin the remaining fiber to match?

Elaine B. taught me the secret of spinning a consistent yarn. She suggested that I make a standard by wrapping a short length of singles from the sample I wanted to emulate around a stiff card (maintaining tension on the yarn). By nestling a newly spun bit of single between the sample strands, it would be easy to compare the fresh yarn to the goal yarn. She said that human eyes are able to pick up on irregularities very quickly this way.

And that was it! Such a simple idea, but it had a huge Ah-hah! impact on my yarn. Whenever I spin, I check the grist against the sample often (every 10 minutes or when I change hooks, whichever comes first), and I change my spinning style dynamically to stay as close to true as possible.

Ideally, you should be able to match grist and twist with this card of standards. However, I have really terrible eyesight and I like to spin fine singles. It’s damn hard to see the angle of fibers if you’re spinning, say, a cobweb single in white wool – therefore, I use one other trick to make sure I’m spinning consistently. I keep a short length of freshly spun and immediately plied 2-ply yarn with my sample card, and when I check for grist, I will also double back some of that single to compare twist. If my fresh 2-ply yarn looks similar to the sample 2-ply, I am fairly confident that the new yarn is the same as the old.

But wait! you cry. What if the final yarn structure isn’t a 2 ply? Well, then I recommend that you keep a sample of the final yarn nearby, too. It is easy to triple-back a fresh single to see how it will look as a balanced 3-ply yarn.

I still make a 2-ply sample for 3-or-more-ply yarns. The green singles pictured below eventually became a 4-ply cabled (crepe) yarn.* You can see that the plied sample is very loose and looks quite underspun, but that’s the degree of twist that I wanted to achieve at that stage. When I did the first round of plying with those singles, I also double-checked nearly each armslength to ensure that the second round of plying would give me something like the sample of final yarn. The red is the sock yarn – my own version and the commercial version were both hanging from the card to make sure I spun consistently throughout the project. The handspun sample looks a little fat, but freshly plied yarn tends to do that. (My yarn gets a little skinnier after plying and washing, even though I don’t dry anything under tension.)

Rita Buchanan once described how many spinners get comfortable spinning only one kind of yarn. A number of spinners may produce their one yarn very well, but they become awkward when asked to change fiber or grist or ply. As a spinner, I never want to get in a rut. I have a different project for each of my 3 bobbins, and I try to plan concurrent projects such that I must spin different grist and twist levels with each one. My fingers have no “memory” when I force them to change what they do so frequently, and I cannot rely purely on recalling how I spun 3 weeks earlier. The little cards of tensioned singles and freshly plied samples guarantee that I won’t stray too far from the yarn I wanted to spin when I designed the project.

* Loosely speaking, to spin a 4-ply cabled yarn, spin the singles Z (clockwise) until they just barely hold together. Ply 2 singles S (counterclockwise) a little tightly – the yarn will not be balanced. Lastly, ply 2 2-ply yarns Z (clockwise) until the plies are balanced.

18 thoughts on “Spinning for consistency

  1. Spinning a consistent grist is something I really work on, especially since I don’t spin that often these days. Your descriptions on ways to check yourself are great!

  2. Thanks for the tips. I think I have to get a bit better at drafting consistently before this will work for me, though.

  3. Thank you for such a great lesson! Spinning consistently is something I am really trying to do – and your pointers are a huge help.

  4. Nice idea, thanks for sharing it. I am slowly working my way through a polwarth/cormo fleece – hoping to spin enough over time to make a full sweater for myself, this will help me (try) to stay consistent over the months/years this will take!

  5. oh dear….. I am just happy if my 2 ply looks good and it doesn’t break when plying. (new spinner here….) Thanks for the tips though.

  6. you answered all my questions… I have tried this in the past, I think I just don’t check frequently enough. Really I need to spin a lot more, a *lot* more.

  7. Another great post, June! Thanks for the tip about the cardstock, I’m bringing home a handful of business cards tonight, I think this will help so much.

  8. In a class I took with Rita, she advised us to compare our freshly spun sample with our standard by feeling, with our eyes closed. She said our touch is more sensitive than our sight.

  9. Ahhh, thank you June, this will be much easier than eye-balling the other bobbin to see how close I am getting. I guess if I did it on recipe cards I could even keep track of fibre, processing, source etc…

  10. It is great being able to read your spinning suggestions. I’m still so green that much of it is beyond me but I hope that as I get better, I’ll be able to apply your suggestions more and more.

  11. thank you!!

    your post made me realize i’m so focused on the length of yarn forming between my hands that i leave matching what’s on my bobbin to guessing, remembering, and imagining.

    i love the notion of honing by spinning whatever is on the sample card in front of you, practicing a specific yarn on demand to differentiate what you are able to spin.

    your spinning is amazing. thanks again for the techniques.

  12. Thanks for the tip. That’s another trick I’ve picked up from you. My spinning group think I’m some kind of whiz. That bobbin winder thing? My husband is till working on making me one with an old sewing machine foot switch he trash picked. And now I know what to do with old business cards.

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