February’s Ask Jacey

This month’s Ask Jacey question comes from Elaine, who asks, “It seems like it’s easy for spinners to spin fine but harder to spin more bulky…any secrets?

Hi there Elaine,

Thanks for asking a question I think half the spinners out there are also asking (because the other half are asking for secrets to spinning fine because spinning bulky is so darned easy for them). What I mean is – you’re not alone.

We all have a spinning spot that’s just easy and comfortable. Our groove. Our default. Our jam. It’s homeostasis, a natural rhythm where nothing special needs to be done to maintain it. I think everything has its own homeostasis. Our bodies have it: it’s the weight our body wants to be and if we want to change that, it takes some work. It’s genetic. Yarn is the same way, I think. We all have a natural spinning style and a natural spinning weight. It’s probably genetic, too (or at least stems from where, when, and from whom we learned to spin). It’s the yarn you spin where you don’t have to count treadles or twists or change your draft or prep. It just is and, boy, does it feel good.

But lots of people want something different than they already have. Often, the road to disappointment is paved with this desire for different. But in yarn, I think it’s perfectly fine and totally achievable! You should be able to spin every single type of yarn you want to spin, and you, Elaine, are in luck because it turns out that I’ve dedicated much of life to helping people get to that point.

Of course, there are all the common tips and tricks you’ve probably heard and that I totally agree with:

  • Use a slow, big pulley (or spindle shaft if you’re on a spindle) so you aren’t putting much twist in the yarn – thinner yarns need more twist and thicker yarns need less. Plus, the more twist you put in your yarn, the thinner it gets as one of the things twist does is bundle yarn down tighter and tighter.
  • Use slower feet and faster hands (or slower twirl and faster hands if you’re on a spindle). This can be tough for spinners. When you first start spinning, you probably had to work pretty hard to introduce your hands to your feet and get the two synced up together. I know I did. The longer you spin, the more difficult it becomes to break this connection. If you speed up your hands (which give the yarn less time to gather twist before it disappears into the orifice), your feet also speed up, which means you’re imparting twist faster than you were and which also means your yarn is relatively the same. So practice treadling and drafting at independent speeds (and yes, I know it’s far harder to do than to say).
  • Strip your fiber out to just a bit bigger than you want your yarn to be. This is something people recommend all the time, and it can totally help, but it can also mess up your fiber prep enough that it does the opposite. Give it a try and see which camp you fall into.

And there are the tips and tricks I totally don’t agree with:

  • Pre-draft your fiber. No. Don’t. That’s the opposite of what you should do for bulky yarn (or almost any yarn, but more on that later). You want more fibers, not fewer!
  • Turn your tension/brake waaaay up. Okay, lemme stop you right there. I disagree with this popular piece of advice. Turning your tension up can create a thicker yarn, it’s true, because the wheel will pull the fiber out of your hands on its own, zipping it into the orifice before you get a chance to thin it out. However, if spinning bulky is something you’re struggling with, you’re probably already a bit on edge, a little nervous, your palms may even be a little, dare I say it, sweaty? The last thing you need is your wheel ripping your fiber from you hands, making you feel that much more like things are out of control and you don’t know what you’re doing. You don’t need to feel like that, heck, nobody does! Back up off that tension, friend. Turn it back down to where it just takes the yarn you offer. There are better ways to spin bulky – increase your skill, not your stress!

Outside of that, Elaine, here’s what I think you should do:

Start with a nicely prepared piece of commercial top. It shouldn’t be compacted or felted, stripped or pre-drafted. I know it stinks to practice on good fiber, but if you’re using crummy fiber, you’re not going to get any good out of the practice. Get something in the medium range – such as Corriedale, Shetland, Jacob, not too long or too short. Put your wheel on your biggest pulley (some folks call this a whorl, but Judith MacKenzie told me to call it a pulley, and that’s the hill I’ll die on) and think about treadling slow. Hold your fiber like you do when you spin a worsted style yarn.

Now reach into your fiber supply with your front hand (your wheel hand) to grab the fibers you’re going to draft – but wait, before you do draft, reach into that fiber supply a little deeper and grab a few more fibers. Now when you draft those fibers forward, draft them only about half as far as you normally would. What that means is that your hands will stay closer together than usual. Your yarn should be thicker.

I’m not saying this is the correct drafting length for the fiber you’re using – I’ve got no idea what fiber you’re using – I’m just saying that to teach yourself to spin thicker, don’t pull those little suckers out as far as you normally would. Play with this a bit, changing your draft a bit this way and that, and see what it does to your yarn. Play with how far into your fiber supply you reach to grab fibers and see how your yarn changes. How thick or thin, consistent or lumpy your yarn is, with any given fiber type and preparation, is in part a play of these two things. I promise.

I’ve recorded a video to help further explain the technique.

P.S. If you are having trouble breaking up your hands and feet, try an electric wheel. If you don’t have one, you probably know somebody who does.

Do you have a question you’d like to ask Jacey? Fill out the form and maybe your question will be the one Jacey answers next!

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