An Introduction to Spinning Yarn
The road to human civilization is paved with the blocks of triumph over natural phenomena in order to survive and prosper. Being able to harness the power of wind and fire, or domesticate plants among many other things, is what has set us apart from other sentient creatures on the planet. Being able to take what we find in nature and make it stronger with bonding and construction has allowed us to build things from socks to skyscrapers; it all just depends on the components, whether they be string or stone. Stone can be stacked, or if we really want to make it strong, we crush it up into concrete. Fiber is no exception; we can take any kind of string and make it stronger by spinning it into yarn. Interlocking strings of fiber into a yarn distribute tension and form a stronger material which can withstand more stress; having greater tensile strength. Rope is made out of yarn, thread is made out of yarn, textiles can be made out of yarn and knitting or weaving can be done with yarn. Yarn is made out of fiber, so any fiber that can be made into a yarn may prove useful to you.
Spinning is simply the act of twisting together drawn out strands of fiber, but it can be done in many ways with various materials. Get to know the material first.
Know Your Fiber
While various kinds of fiber have other wonderful uses to us (like wood fiber and paper), the purpose of this article is to familiarize you with spinning textile fiber (natural or synthetic) into yarn. Many kinds of fiber are long enough so that they can be spun into yarn (usually 2 inches or more), so a good start would be to understand what kinds of strings, filaments and fibers we commonly look for.
- Vegetable Fiber: plant fibers like cotton, hemp, flax, sisal, or even banana.
- Animal Fiber: like fur, wool, hair, sinew, silk (worm and spider), sea silk or catgut.
- Synthetic Fiber: man-made fibers like polymer, metallic fiber, rayon or textile bamboo fiber.
While there are other kinds of fiber, they aren’t necessarily relevant or useful in making wool. Asbestos, for instance, is a naturally occurring mineral fiber (the only naturally occurring mineral fiber), and while it can totally be spun into yarn; it is also dangerous to handle and harmful to living organisms, like us.
So that being said, if you can track down some safe textile fiber, you can get to spinning it into a yarn. Depending on the material, you may have to process it to a degree first in order to be in a form which can be spun. Different processes commonly have different names dependent on the material, but so long as you can draw out strands of the fiber, you should be able to spin it. Wool is a good example to follow for common spinning terminology.
- A Distaff holds unspun or roving fibers.
- Roving is a continuous strand of fibers that have already been carded and are ready to spin.
- Carding is when you prepare teased but unprocessed fiber by untangling it and aligning it, usually by combing it over surfaces. Carded fiber is the resulting material.
- Teasing is when you loosen the fiber and spread it out, removing any undesirable particles, lumps or dirt so that it may be cleaned. Teased fiber is the resulting material.
- A Niddy-Noddy is a double-headed tool used in skeining spun yarn. Skeining basically means to wind the thread off the spindle.
- A Skein is a length of yarn or thread that has been loosely coiled and knotted. When you’re spinning you’re effectively looking to create skeins of yarn.
We have been spinning fiber into yarn since the dawn of human history. Whether we used it for traps, tying things up or holding clothes together; we started using yarn so long ago that we have come up with numerous methods since in order to make spinning more efficient and less time consuming. In fact, spinning can be so time consuming that individuals have literally spent lifetimes doing nothing but spinning. Once you get into yarn, you will never get enough of it. Historically we have had so much need for yarn that before industrialization, pretty much anyone who had nothing better to do with their time, was tasked with spinning yarn all day. In medieval Europe, unmarried women spent so much time spinning wool that the term spinster has come to be recognized as a word synonymous with “unwed woman”. While you won’t find many single ladies today spending their lives spinning yarn, they are often still referred to as spinsters. The legacy and impact that spinning yarn has had on our civilization cannot be understated.
Although spinning was probably originally done by twisting fiber in our hands (which will get you nowhere), we have constantly developed newer tools and methods throughout the ages of technological advancement in order to speed the process up and increase capacity.
While the precise details of our first spinning tools have been lost to the ages, fiber was spun into yarn for thousands of years using simple devices called spindles and distaffs. These were made obsolete by spinning wheels, and spinning wheels were made obsolete by industrialization which saw the birth of machines which can mass-produce yarn faster than any human alone could ever hope to do. A human might be able to spin a few hundred meters of yarn in a day, a machine can spin kilometers.
Today you can purchase a variety of different machines that will automatically take a supply of ready fiber and spin it into usable yarn. These machines can vary in size and function for different volumes and purpose, and while some are literally the size of buildings, others can be much more accommodating (mobile or even handheld). We sell a variety of automatic spinning machines here, and all you have to do in order to operate them is read the instructions, follow the instructions, then sit back. If you are honestly looking for the easiest way to spin yarn, use an automatic machine, no question.
If circumstance prevents you from simply buying yarn (which we also sell), or being able to acquire an automatic spinning machine, you will have to spin fiber by hand if you really want that yarn.
In this case, you will ideally want to get your hands on a spinning wheel since this can produce far more yarn than spinning with a spindle. Spinning wheels vary in design but all basically do the same thing. If you can’t find instructions for a specific model, refer to our guide on operating a spinning wheel to learn how they work. If you can’t get to, purchase (we sell them) or make a spinning wheel (we can teach you how), you should use a type of spindle called a drop spindle. While much slower than a spinning wheel, a drop spindle can be constructed with a few basic pieces and it will allow you to spin fiber and contain its yarn.
To learn more about hand spinning methods (and if you missed the links to them in the article) read up on them here:
- How to Build a Spinning Wheel
- How to Operate a Spinning Wheel
- The Drop Spindle