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.