Friday, October 28, 2011

Fifth grade physics

Let us consider the world of Peter Teal - Hand Woolcombing and Spinning.  PT puts a lot of effort into combing, planking, and drawing off a uniform sliver of parallel wool fibers, then he put a lot more effort into drafting them "inch worm".  If he had just thought about his fifth grade physics, he would have realized that there is an easier way.  A way that was long utilized and memorialized in art.  It is the art of the distaff.

Wool is long, flexible fibers with little scales on them which tend to catch on other wool fibers.  If you have a short, neat sliver of  parallel fibers of wool, and pull fibers out of one end, then the scales on those fibers will catch other fibers, and pull the other fibers out of parallel, and into "disarray".  With the fibers at the drafting tip of the sliver in disarray, then the spinner must resort to inch worm drafting to pull them straight and parallel again.

The fifth grade physics approach is to avoid the disarray by anchoring the upstream end of the fibers by attaching the far end of the sliver to a distaff.  Then the entire sliver is under tension, and the tension holds all fibers straight and parallel.  Near the drafting triangle, the drafting hand maintains a taper from the main sliver to the drafting triangle so that the upper end of all of the draftable fibers are in contact with more fibers than the drafting end of those fibers.  Thus, there is more friction at the sliver end of those fibers and the process of drafting tends to hold those fibers straight and parallel.  The reason that the distaff was call "the rock" is because the spinner was always pulling against the distaff.

When the drafting process inherently aligns the fibers, then the drafting can be a continuous process.  As a continuous process, it can be very fast.  With a distaff, one can draft worsted style singles as fast or faster as long draw woolen spinning.  Further more, if all the fibers in the drafting triangle are aligned, then the spinner can allow twist to run up into the drafting triangle and still have worsted yarn.

I started spinning about 3 years ago.  Prior to that I was reading about spinning, and watching spinners.  I read the modern literature on hand spinning, and I go to spinning guild meetings and fiber shows.  And I spin.
Merino, spun "worsted" as 20s, and made up into 2-ply.  The grist of the above 2-ply yarn is ~5,000 ypp or just over 10 meters per gram. The yarn is very soft, very stretchy, and silky smooth.  It is not something Peter Teal could have spun because he did use a distaff.  With a distaff, it is easy.

I trashed the first few video clips I shot of this process because I was intending to spin 9,000 ypp and I was spinning 11,000 ypp and the camera could not pick up the fine thread.  Over the last few weeks, I have had to relearn how to spin thicker singles, i.e., the 5,600 ypp and 9,000 that were the base of all my yarns.  Now, I am redesigning my yarns because with finer plies, I can make nicer yarns, and finer is nicer.  It is softer, smoother, stronger, and more durable.  Nicer!

Here is the setup (with the new distaff.)  I am putting a lot of time in on distaff design, not because it is hard, but because distaffs are so important.

And here is the spinning.  As you can see, the single is worsted and the process is long draw.  The pinch from my left hand (on camera) prevents twist from running into the draft triangle which goes off to the right of the frame.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Double Flier Spinning Wheels

The Han Chinese  (2,000 years ago) had treadle powered, double spindle spinning wheels so that a cotton spinner could spin with both hands.  In 1598, the British Parliament passed a law requiring spinning schools to teach their students how to spin with both hands and to have double flier spinning wheels so the students could practice the art.  It was one way to spin faster in a world without spinning mills.

Now, I have one!  Well, I do,  if a pile of  worm eaten oak counts?

She is broke, and has had major repairs at least twice in her life - done at a level of craftsmanship that is much lower than the original wheel.  The poor quality of the rather extensive repair distracts from the fact that the wheel was originally rather fine. At one time, she did a good bit of spinning because both of the flier/bobbin assemblies are worn, and the axle of the replaced bobbin is very worn.

The wheel diameter is ~15".  Wheel to bobbin ratio is ~ 1:10.  DRS is ~ 1.2, however, in the original bobbin, the whorl is very deep and narrow, so that actual DRS would depend on the width of the cord.  The drive wheel has two grooves, and the flier/bobbin assemblies were offset, so that each could have their own DD drive band and each flier/bobbin assembly has its own tension adjustment screw.  The hecks were set only 1/8th inch apart.  The bobbins are captive in the fliers, and the orifices are ~3/16th inch.

ETA 10/28 (not captive, just lots and lots of gunk in the way.)
ETA 10/30 Made in Germany circa 1900.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Handspun 10-ply Aran yarn

It can be done.

10-ply,. 700 yards per pound. 16 wpi.    That right!

If you take the singles that were hand spun worsted for weaving at 16 hanks per pound from Shetland wool, and ply them up as 5 X 2-ply you get a yarn that the same thickness as the Yorkshire gansey yarn, but is 30% denser and thus much warmer.  The first small skein is being blocked now,

and will go to the Guild meeting  for show and tell.

I figure ~100 hours to spin the yarn for a Aran fisherman's sweater and a 100 hours to knit.  A wife could do an Aran in 3 months just working on it 2 or 3 hours per day.  It would be much much warmer than a gansey made of Yorkshire 5-ply @ 1000 ypp ( 50 hours to spin and  80 hours to knit) .  Well worth the extra effort if your man is fishing the North Sea.

The little square wooden thing is a "plying comb".  It helps to organize the singles and makes producing 5-ply yarn much easier, and the yarn more consistent.  I like historians - even long dead ones  : ).  They tell me about the the tools I need to do the job right.

The first skein off  the wheel this morning was 5-ply @ 1,800 ypp.  Interesting, but not much practical value that I can see.

The process that I now like  is to spin 16 or 18 hank/ lb singles and make 2-ply.  (Come on, you spin for fun.  Spinning fine means more fun per pound.  And, it means fabrics that are lighter, more durable, and warmer.) The 2-ply is stronger more stable, and easier to handle. Then, 2 X 2-ply is light fingering, 3 X 2-ply is  sport and 4 X 2-ply is worsted weight.  Of these the 3X 2-ply is the winner for most knitting.   The more plies make it  more consistent, warmer, and more durable than the 2 or 3-ply worsted weight that is more common.  More plies allow the fabric to be softer and more flexible than the 5-ply of similar grist and twist.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Anything that can be done, can be done better

The spindle with removable whorl got shown to a Portuguese historian. She will be starting extensive travels in the near future. We played with the spindle for a while (we were at the LYS) and decided it (with a distaff) was as fast as any of the traveling wheels in the store. So, I gave it to her. I believe in giving nice gifts to the people that write history.  

Thus,   I needed a new spindle.  Mark II:

It is 15 grams lighter than the Mark I.

It did not work!  The weight or dynamics were wrong and it wobbled too much.  Put that puppy on a diet.

Thinned, with a deeper groove and a heavier nut, it works.  It wants a distaff.  And, it wants to spin much finer than I was trying to spin the blue Romney above.  Details matter.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Sum of All

It is possible to hand spin worsted yarn using a "long-draw" technique.  ( Not what you have been told before, now is it? )

It requires special tools.  One must have a DD wheel with the appropriate differential rotation speed (DRS) and bobbin core size to insert the correct twist and to take-up at the correct rate.  It requires well combed top on a well designed distaff.

It only works at fairly high grist (9,000 ypp and up depending on fiber), and it only works for spinning at a brisk pace.

The process involves the drafting hand teasing fiber out of the sliver attached to the distaff.  The fibers are kept under some tension as they stream into the drafting hand where they are spread to form the base of the drafting triangle. The tip of the drafting triagle is a narrow ribbon of fibers feeding between the forefinger and thumb of the pinching hand. The drafting hand and pinching hand are moved together and apart for precise control of the grist,  The pinching hand keeps enough pressure on the tip of the drafting triangle to keep the twist from traveling up into the drafting triangle, but not so much pressure as to stop the continuous stream of fibers through the "pinch".  The thumb and forefinger of the pinching hand move back and forth to facilitate movement of the fibers through the pinch.

With lower grist singles, it is not possible to stop the twist from moving up into the drafting zone. Without a distaff, it is not possible to get the fibers aligned as they enter the drafting zone.

I had though the technique possible shortly after I started working with controlled DRS systems, however, I had not been able to make it work.  The addition of a distaff was required to actually make the concept work.

The process is very fast.

Pictures and details to come.

Spindles and spindle whorls

A while back, I thought about spindles.  I went around and played with a bunch of  them.  I went into the shop and made a few.  My conclusion was that they were toys. I concluded that modern spindle designs were not really tools for serious worsted thread production. 

I was missing two technologies that are essential to the system.  One is the distaff.  The other is a removable whorl.  We find whorls made of fired clay, metal and stone around the world, and we tend to assume that that entire spindle was lost, all at once, and then the wooden shaft rotted away, leaving the whorl for us to find.

However, looking at accounts of spinners in the Highlands, they put a whorl on the spindle, start spinning, and as the copp builds, they take the whorl off, put it in their pocket, and let the copp act as the whorl. This allows them to produce longer continuous threads.  This is a tool for serious worsted thread production.

And, it is easy to lose a whorl out of  their pocket.

I have come up with a spindle design that I like much better than any other that I have tried.

I start with a spindle shaft about 12 inches long.  It has a spiral groove for the thread (because hooks catch on everything and a half-hitch causes the thread to lose 40% of the thread's tensile strength.  If you design the spindle assuming the use of a half-hitch, then you reduce the length of the thread that can be spun on that spindle by 40%.)  The groove is made with a small knife and a rasp.

I go to the hardware store and I buy 2 threaded nuts, one big, and one small.  I thin the spindle down, leaving a bulge at the bottom.  The bulge is large enough that the threads of the large nut will catch on it and tapered enough that I can thread the small nut on it.  Threaded nuts for bolts are very cheap.  You can afford to buy a few  in the event that your "spindle whorl" falls out of your pocket.

I "screw" the large nut on the bottom of the spindle and start spinning. 

 As my copp grows, I take the heavy nut off and put the small nut on.

When the copp gets large enough to stabilize the spindle, I take the nut off and put it in my pocket where it can fall out.

The metal nuts have enough weight to spin well.  Their concentrated weight means that the spindle tends to spin fast - much faster than with modern disk-whorl designs.  So fast, that you can not draft fast enough to keep up with it -- unless you are spinning fairly fine and have a distaff to help you draft faster.  This is not a spindle for beginners.

Here ( and here (,  even after their copp has grown, the fixed whorl tends to slow the RPM of the spindle, limiting how fast they can spin, and the weight of the whorl limits how fine and long a thread they can spin. However,  it is not hard to find pictures of  Peruvian spinners using removable whorls and distaves.  See for example

ETA:  Last night, Will Taylor told me that many South American spinners use machine nuts as spindle whorl weights.

ETA: The idea 

Thursday, October 13, 2011


 I did not learn to use a distaff when spinning wool. Then, I read a post in the blog, A stitch in time, and she pointed out that all the old pictures of spinners have distaves. So, I tried it. 

It works. OK, that is part of my Niddy poked into a hole in my Traddy, but it works!
For worsted spinning, it is like having 3 hands. The drafting hand can keep some tension between the distaff and the drafting zone to keep the fibers aligned. This is sort of like continuous pre-drafting. While a wrist distaff or wrapping the roving around the drafting arm can store fiber and help keep it orderly and out of the way, these methods do not aid in the drafting process like a real distaff.  A good distaff aids in the drafting process.  
Those old timers had a lot spinning to do, and a short time to do it.  They knew how to spin a high-quality thread as fast as possible.  They used a distaff
I swear that I have not seen modern spinners using real distaves, but then a few days ago I would have sworn it was not in the books either.  However, there it is, in the first paragraph of Chapter 7 in Amos.  He did not write “Use a distaff when spinning linen.”  No, he wrote, “Use a distaff.”
The problem that I had with the distaff was that my grist rose from my intended 9,000 ypp to 14,000 ypp. I have to retrain my drafting hand -- or change my yarn design. 
What works best? Actually a wooden yard stick stuck in my waist band worked fairly well, and is fairly typical of what we see  in Classic Greek art.  However, it is a bit awkward for sitting at a spinning wheel.  For a spinning wheel, Amos suggests a free standing distaff.  However, I like to spin in my window corner beside the breakfast table - not much floor space there.  Thus, my solution is a distaff attached to my wheel.

How good is it?  Well I am spending all day making a better one.  It is a technology with huge promise.

Russian Distaves
It is like knitting sheaths.  They made them because they work very well.

PS. It is not pretty but the Mark II distaff is very, very functional:

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Spinning in Public

I like the idea, but I cannot do it.

When I spin in public, I slow down and my grist goes all over the place. At Lambtown, I spun for HOURS and produced a grand total of 350 yards of single, some of which was thin and some of which was fat, and all of which was poor quality. Intended grist for the day was ~9,000 ypp, actual average grist was less than 5,400.  OK, there was poor light where I was sitting and other factors, but a week later in a spinning group, with the same intended grist, my actual grist was less than 8,000 ypp.

My hat is off to the folks that can spin their intended grist in public.  I have given up trying to spin project quality singles in public.  In the future, I will take some of that Blue Romney that I have, and not worry about what I am actually spinning.