Spinning by Hand

watermellow roving
watermellon roving

Several years ago I learned how to make carded wool into yarn using a drop spindle. For many thousands of years, this was the primary method for producing the yarn and thread from which all cloth and clothing was made. Because it takes a long time to spin enough yarn for a garment, clothing was considered much more valuable in pre-industrial societies than it is today. My first efforts at learning to spin were not very successful. I’d purchased a “learn-to-spin” kit, which included a spindle, a small quantity of roving, and a book. Learning from a book is not the best method for this dynamic activity. When I had the opportunity to watch someone spin, however, it all became much clearer. I made further progress when I set aside the light-weight spindle that came with the kit and began to use a heavier spindle I made myself from two used CD-ROM discs and a dowel.
While I wouldn’t want to rely on it for producing my daily clothing, hand spinning as a craft activity is fun and relaxing. In addition, it allows for both control and creativity. To produce interesting patterns for colors, for example, one can dye roving using a technique known as “hand painting” and then spin it to produce a unique yarn.

The roving shown above was created by carefully pouring red, orange and green dyes across a wet 4′ wool bat laid flat on a sheet of plastic wrap. The dyes used were a type known as acid dye, which sounds dangerous but is not. An acid dye is simply a dye that requires in acidic environment, usually in combination with heat, for the dye to set and become colorfast. In this case the acidic environment was created by soaking the bat in water with 1 cup of vinegar added. It’s important to soak the bat for at least an hour to make sure all the fibers are wet, and then to drain and gently press out excess water so the bat remains wet but not dripping. Once the dye has been painted on, the bat will need to be heated to the point of steaming to complete the process of setting the dye. I do this by first soaking up unabsorbed dye with sponge or paper towels, then wrapping the bat in the plastic wrap and heating it in a microwave. Since microwaves vary, its best to heat in 1 minute bursts until you see indications of steaming. It’s important not to overheat, as this may burn the wool or melt the plastic wrap. Once the bat has been steamed and allowed to cool, I unwrap it and rinse it in lukewarm water to remove excess dye. I then press out as much water as I can (making sure not to wring, twist, or stretch) and leave the bat to air dry. The yarn that resulted from spinning this bat and plying it back on itself is shown to the right.