Spin Something Lofty on Your Spindles

Let’s face it. Comfort spinning is a thing. So I turn to my wall of tubs – 42 tubs stacked against the west wall of my bedroom, my entire stash and most of my spindles, all that remains after serious destashing and moving halfway across the United States during the first summer of Covid.

Mixing Things up for a Sweater

I always admire those who are able to spin mountains of yarn for a big project, ready to knit a wonderful sweater or cardigan. It is a satisfying feeling when you finish all that work, especially if you started with washing and combing the wool or even raising your own sheep.

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Sheep-to-Shawl Process for Creating Lofty Yarn Using Racka Wool

Jacqueline Harp
American Racka sheep photo provided by Nancy Richardson
All other photos by Jacqueline Harp

The spring 2021 issue of PLY featured a magnificent collection of articles on the topic of dual-coated sheep breeds. This issue contained an in-depth fleece study of American Racka sheep. The devotion and labor involved in caring for this special heritage breed demands extraordinary recognition. What better way to honor the dedication of the shepherdess who provided the fleece for the article than to gift her with a hand-knitted, 100 percent Racka wool shawl, handspun from the fleece of her flock! Join me in this unique fiber arts experience as we tackle the challenge of spinning a lofty yarn from the dual-coated fleece of the Racka.


When used to describe yarn, loft means light, airy, and having a soft handle. Generally, one would not pair loft with dual-coated because the latter often implies that the fiber is coarse, but that is exactly what can be accomplished with the right techniques from raw fleece to shawl. To demonstrate this almost alchemical process in the most dramatic way, I took the heavy, dual-coated fleece of the rare American Racka, and brought loft – lightness, soft handle, and rustic uniformity – to the yarn.

Raw fleece

When I first unrolled a whole Racka fleece on a table in my studio, I was greeted by an expanse of long, stunning silver-gray locks. The locks of an American Racka fleece contain four fiber types: an inner coat, an outer coat, guard hairs, and kemp. A Racka fleece can weigh around 6.5 pounds, with a micron count of 12–40 microns and staple lengths between 8–12 inches.

I skirted the fleece, taking care to remove vegetable matter and any felted locks along the perimeter. Once I finished skirting, I washed a few handfuls of the fleece in hot soapy water. The on-body felting I noticed while skirting indicated that Racka wool may be prone to felting, so I was extra careful not to agitate the fleece or change the temperature during scouring. Once the Racka wool was properly scoured, I laid it out to dry on a table.

Going woolen

The main challenge of this Racka fleece-to-shawl spin project was creating a lofty yarn. The woolen method of handspinning is a great way to achieve lofty, bouncy, and soft yarns. Thus, I chose the woolen method from preparation to spinning.

I took small handfuls of washed Racka locks and laid them in a single layer on my 90 TPI drum carder. I ran the locks through the carder twice to get them thoroughly mixed. The locks blended easily on the drum. It is important to note that although Racka locks hold four different fiber types, the carder did a wonderful job blending those fibers together to make well-blended, airy batts.

I pre-drafted the batts into long strips. This additional step helped make the fibers easier to spin, while still preserving the loftiness of the preparation.

Spinning with drop spindles

The strips of Racka batting felt coarse to the touch, communicating the need for low twist to soften the handle. The coarseness also meant the yarn would be softer and lighter as a single; plying would have added more twist and weight to the yarn, accentuating coarseness. The strength of the Racka fiber allows for a low-twist single that has structural integrity and a softer handle. Thus, I spun all the pre-drafted Racka batts with top whorl drop spindles, using the long draw spinning method. The resulting yarn was a fingering weight single with a WPI of 14.


I finished the singles in a bath of hot water, still being careful not to cause felting by overhandling. I squeezed out excess water and gave the yarns the “whack” treatment against the edge of the sink. This gives more loft to the singles by setting the twist and encouraging the fibers to bloom.

The pattern

The fun part was deciding on a shawl pattern for my handspun Racka singles. I ended-up choosing the Boneyard Shawl, a free pattern offered by Stephen West (Westknits). It is an enchanting design that can make use of a variety of yarn weights.

I actually had the good fortune to meet Stephen in person back in 2019, when I happened to be in town to visit my LYS, the Fibre Space, located in Alexandria, VA. Stephen was teaching once of his in-person classes at the time, and I waited over an hour just to take a picture with him, and he was kind enough to oblige.


The Racka singles knit effortlessly upon my needles. I finished and blocked the shawl after a soapy bath. After it dried, it was beautiful and fairy-like.

Although it was not next-to-the-skin soft, the yarn was noticeably softer after knitting and was not unpleasant to wear. It also felt warm, light, and springy when worn across my shoulders.


I carefully packaged the shawl and sent it to Nancy Richardson, the American Racka shepherdess. Nancy is a champion for her sheep breed and takes great care of her sheep. She was delighted to receive the shawl and was frankly shocked to see that I was able to create such a wearable and beautiful product from the Racka fleece. She remarked how gorgeous it was to see the natural colors of silver and gray move in a gentle fade throughout the fabric.

Parting thoughts

It has been a pleasure to show you how versatile Racka wool is and what happens when it is prepared and spun using the woolen method. It shows that achieving loft is possible when spinning rare, unusual wools from the dual-coated breeds. As you contemplate your next lofty spin project, don’t be afraid to try your own sheep-to-shawl project and rise above the presumption of coarseness.

Jacqueline Harp is a freelance writer and multimedia fiber artist who spins, felts, weaves, crochets, and knits in every spare moment possible. She is also a certified Master Sorter of Wool Fibers through the State Univ. of N.Y. (Cobleskill) Sorter-Grader-Classer (SGC) Program. Her Instagram handle is @foreverfiberarts.

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Correction to the Loft (Summer 2022) Issue

In the Loft issue (Summer 2022), for the Bogolanfini pattern (page 88), one of the charts was cut off during printing. For the Spindle and Shelling Peanuts Together chart, there should be two more columns on the left side (41 and 42). Updated chart below.

PLY Magazine believes that Black lives matter, as well as LBGTQI+ lives. Those most vulnerable and persecuted in our communities deserve our love and support. Please be good to each other.

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The Story of a Coat

words and photos by Rebecca Harkins

The pandemic gave me the perfect opportunity to achieve a lifelong dream to make my own wool shirt. Since I raise sheep and have a lot of fiber available to spin, I decided to use handspun wool. 

The first thing to decide was what the fabric design would be. My dream shirt just had to be plaid. I wanted a simple pattern with larger blocks of color and I wanted to use what I already had. I had a beautiful natural chocolate brown Shetland roving and a large quantity of white roving available. I also had a huge tub of teal dye (when calculating how much dye to order for a project, decimal points really matter). Since I didn’t want the shirt to end up too dark, I decided to also include white in the fabric design. These 3 colors went into the plaid I designed for the shirt. 

Once the colors, fabric design, and fabric pattern were chosen, it was time to figure out how much fiber I would need. This involved much discussion, several napkins and notebooks, several phone calls and emails to friends to check my math, stopping to spin, weave, full asample, and finally adjust my calculations yet again. I do think rocket science would be easier. Nervous, I decided to add an error rate to my calculations so I would spin enough to make some extra fabric. Besides, who wouldn’t like extra custom-made wool fabric?

With calculations done, I prepared all of my fiber and set to spinning on my Kromski Symphony wheel. I chose to ply my yarn to make a stronger yarn for weaving. Over the next two months, the mountain of finished skeins grew and grew. I kept a tally of the yardage of each skein as I completed it so I could track my progress towards my goal. My Symphony is a real workhorse, so each skein took an average of 1 hour 35 minutes to spin. It took an average of 44 minutes to ply and skein each ball. All told I spun 13,095 yards or 7.44 miles of 2-ply yarn. My wraps per inch (WPI) for the plied yarn was 22. 

With the spinning all done, it was time to dye. The brown would stay as it was, but I needed to dye just slightly more than half of the white to teal. My dyepot could hold two skeins of yarn and I had nineteen skeins to do.

The next step was to warp the loom. My loom is a Paxton 4-shaft floor loom. As I was warping, I deliberately mixed up the different dye lots, using one strand of this dye lot and the next strand another dye lot to disguise any dye lot differences. This blending worked astonishingly well and added a beautiful depth to the teal. My loom has a sectional beam allowing me to warp in 1-inch segments, which were then put on the loom. 

Once the cloth was woven, it needed to be fulled. Fulling is the process of felting or partially felting wool fabric to make it more stable. This process wasa lot of work as I chose to do the feltingby hand because I was concerned the machine would felt thefabric into a ball. This process is done by wetting the fabric with soap and water and squishing and rubbing it repeatedly to make it felt. In total the squish and rub process took 5 hours.

Once I thought it was felted sufficiently, I sewed it onto a wooden frame under tension to dry. I had done some research about the historical fabric finishing techniques and found that fabrics were stretched and hooked onto a frame and left to dry. I had a frame made to fit my fabric and stitched the fabric to the frame (instead of hooks) to stretch the fabric while it dried. The frame allowed me to lean the whole piece against the wall, protecting it from accidentally being walked on as it was laid out to dry. This took 2 hours! The whole fullingprocess would have been more fun with friends like the “waulking the wool” parties depicted in Outlander. Darn the pandemic.

When the fabric had dried, I discovered it was thicker than planned. This meant it was much too thick to be made into a shirt. I then had to rethink my project and started looking at different patterns. I decided the heavy fabric would work very nicely for a cozy winter parka, so I found a pattern to use. Before I could cut the fabric, I had to assemble the pattern; it took me 2 hours to tape together the sheets and cut out the pieces. I was then ready to pin the pieces to the fabric. Since the fabric was a plaid, it was necessary to take extra care to make sure the plaid lines all matched up on the different pieces. If the plaid lines were not matched properly, it would be very obvious in the finished jacket. This took extra time as I had to pin the layers of the fabric together, aligning the plaid lines in the separate layers. Then I carefully placed the pattern pieces. Once the outer fabric of the jacket was cut, I pinned and cut out the silk fabric for the lining.

Once all the pattern pieces were ready (both outer fabric and lining), it was time to start assembling the coat. I learned a lot about sewing this project and how to do things I had never done before. The biggest thing I learned how to do was match plaids around the coat. This was a real challenge and required a lot of double checking that I’d done it right. I also learned that lightweight silk fabric is no fun to work with and when in doubt pin more until you run out of pins. My favorite thing I learned was how to do inset pockets correctly. I love that they are completely finished and they are wonderful to use. The coat was hand finished by hemming and sewing on toggle buttons. Once all the machine sewing was completed, the coat was pressed. 

To finish the hood, I wove a faux fur band on an Inkle loom with 100 percent wool yarn. The fur is made from 100 percent Romney wool locks shorn from my flock that were hand knotted into the weaving. This makes a very durable but flexible band that is finished so it can be sewn onto the hood. For washing, this will be removed and washed separately if needed. 

Over the course of this project I kept track of the hours I spent planning, spinning, dyeing, warping, weaving, fulling, and sewing. All together, I put just over 222 hours into this project! I used over 13,000 yards of yarn and made and used 5.25 yards of fabric.

Even though I didn’t end up with what I had planned at the start of my adventure, it was an amazing process. I learned a lot starting the project right from the basic materials. My advice to others;don’t be afraid of big projects. Enjoy the process. Be flexible in your plans; sometimes things just don’t work out as planned. And finally, be excited to stretch yourself and your skills. 

Rebecca  Harkins is a fiber artist and shepherd with more than 15 years experience. She raises Romneys and Merinos and enjoys using their wool in her work. She also enjoys teaching and writing about fiber arts. She dyes, spins, felts, and weaves the wool from her sheep, making beautiful tapestries, afghans, and garments.

PLY Magazine believes that Black lives matter, as well as LBGTQI+ lives. Those most vulnerable and persecuted in our communities deserve our love and support. Please be good to each other.

Did you know we also have a monthly PLY newsletter? Sign up here!

Did you know we also have a monthly PLY newsletter? Sign up here!

6 Reasons Why We Should Mix it Up

Words and Photos by Joanne Seiff

There’s really something exquisite about a habit. That morning dog walk, cup of coffee, or the cookie we eat after lunch – life is full of delicious, everyday activities. For many spinners, spinning the same vanilla kind of yarn becomes so automatic that one day you may long to break out and try something new. Or you can’t see the point, because this is the only kind of yarn you’ll ever use. Worse, now that you’ve spun the same kind of yarn for so long, you fear this is it – you can’t make anything different. So why mix it up?

Lots of my handspun mix ups to keep myself stimulated.
  1. It’s good for you intellectually. Research shows that learning new things, including hands-on, flow activities like spinning, can help develop new neural pathways in our brains. There’s some indication this can prevent dementia, depression, and all sorts of other health concerns. So if you’re a long-time laceweight Merino spinner, spinning that bulky crunchy longwool might be like eating more fibre or a daily constitutional. It’s worth pushing yourself. Keep those neurons firing and stay healthy and active.
  2. It might get your body moving! If you’ve long been a single treadle, Saxony spinning wheel spinner, you’re likely not using one foot as much as the other. A double treadle wheel might be worth exploring. If you’re always spinning sitting down, a hand spindle might help you move your shoulders and arms in ways they need to stretch. A walking wheel can help you put extra steps into every day without going outdoors in bad weather. There are lots of ways to stretch and move while also continuing to spin. Spinning may not be a high-intensity workout, but keeping moving, in all directions, can be good for us at any age.
  3. It improves your mental health in small ways. Really! No kidding. A change is as good as a rest, and all those other clichés. Sometimes, grabbing a hand-dyed braid in bright colours can be just the stimulating pick me up you need to feel more joy in the dead of winter. Colour has that power, when used carefully. Other times, a seemingly endless run of cream-colored crisp Texel hand-carded rolags might provide just the soothing texture you need to calm down during trying times.
  4. It meets specific goals. There can be little more satisfying than creating something, by hand, from start to finish. Sometimes I meet spinners in a rut who successfully spin small batches of yarn but cannot graduate to sweater-sized quantities. Or they churn out factory-sized quantities of uniform yarn but at the wrong weight or using the wrong fibre for the job at hand. Figuring out what you really need and then changing your spinning to meet that goal can be a game changer. For instance, what if you really need a warm, brown, hardwearing pill-free sweater for hiking and working outdoors, but you only spin 4-ounce braids of Merino pink hand-dyes? It’s time to help yourself meet those goals! Change your usual activities and start to spin a naturally brown medium or long wool instead.
  5. It gifts us with novelty. If you’re struggling with the same-old, same-old in other parts of your life (hello, pandemic blues), it’s okay to change it up for no reason at all. Not to learn something new or for a specific project or even because you’re actually feeling unwell in body or mind. What if you just want to play? Enjoying a new exploration – in processing fibre, dyeing, colour blending, technique, spinning tool, whatever – can help address that need for “new new new” that our society often thrusts upon us. Your values may not align with that of fast fashion, but sometimes we still yearn for a treat. Surely a little packet of exotic fibre – yak or qiviut, anyone? – or a stint of spinning cotton, flax, or hemp might change up a habitual wool spinner’s routine.   
  6. It meets others’ needs. Often, we break out of habits not because it’s good for us but because it’s good for others. In other words, they need us. For instance, your local school needs woollies to hand out for children who come to school without warm clothes. This calls for some warm mitts and hats in a hurry – perhaps in superwash wools or down breeds that won’t felt on the playground. Since you’re a spinner, you can work to meet that need, whether it’s a laceweight christening shawl, a chemo cap, or those mittens spun and knit in a hurry for those cold elementary school kids.
Sweater’s amount of bulky weight Rideau/Dorset cross (Heinz 57 sheep) medium wool. I spun this during the pandemic during remote schooling to try to stay calm while dealing with my twins. (It’s still a bit full of VM but it was free wool and kept me from losing it.)

There are lots of reasons to mix it up as a spinner! There’s no need to pick just one reason. In fact, you don’t have to try something different because it’s healthy for your mind, body, or mood or to meet personal goals or to try something new or meet anyone else’s needs. Instead, why not try it because it’s fun?

Mixitup3: Gray Cotswold single and multicolored odds and ends from the dye pot single, plied together – one of a kind art yarn.

Joanne Seiff has written three fiber-related books: Three Ply, Fiber Gathering, and Knit Green. She writes, edits, spins, knits, designs, and teaches in Winnipeg. See her designs on Payhip, Ravelry, and Lovecrafts.com—her designs might sing in your handspun. Read joanneseiff.blogspot.com or @yrnspinner on Instagram to learn more!

PLY Magazine believes that Black lives matter, as well as LBGTQI+ lives. Those most vulnerable and persecuted in our communities deserve our love and support. Please be good to each other.

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Making Journey Yarns

words and photos by Joanne Nakonechny

To sharpen my memory of any longish trip I make, I begin making a travel journal as soon as I start travelling. I gather any small items I can – sketches, photos, stamps, postcards – and write about each day. When I get home, I physically make a book and fill it with all that I have gathered. The ideas, impressions, and other items found while travelling (Japanese beer labels are fascinating!) vividly remind me of the smells, textures, and lived experience of each journey.

As a spinner, I’ve often thought about spinning a trip yarn to add to my journal but couldn’t quite work out the type of representation I wanted. However, as I sat on a train in southern Honshu (Japan), my imagination began to work, and I thought about constructing a yarn that would represent several major themes of my Japanese trips around the main idea of textiles. I jotted down the indigo dyeing and silk weaving workshops I took and the numerous textile museums and workshops I visited and let this idea “compost” during the rest of the trip. After returning home, I continued working on the idea and selected three significant Japanese textile elements: indigo, cotton, and silk as the strands for my 3-ply yarn. These themes are linked by their textile emphasis, and two of them (cotton and silk) demonstrate how foreign products can be transferred into another culture and then transformed into general cultural use and representation.


I chose indigo because it is/was traditionally used throughout Japan. Mention indigo to anyone and images of the Silk Road often emerge in their minds. Indigo has a long history around the world and in China, documentation on its use originates as far back as 2,697 BCE. Its societal impact ranges from symbols to myths, stories, planting, harvesting, and dyeing traditions. The predominant natural indigo currently in use/used in Japan, persicaria tinctoria (formerly classified as polygonum tinctoria), was introduced from China around the 4th century CE. The composting method used to prepare the indigo leaves for dyeing was probably adapted from the Ainu of northern Hokkaido who used it for woad. As elsewhere, the current status of using natural indigo in Japan is precarious but hopeful as greater interest in its subtle colour shadings, ecological benefits and various uses becomes more known to artists, artisans, chefs, and industry.


I chose cotton as it became a commonly used textile in Japan. Indigo and cotton are great friends in the dye pot as indigo is a substantive dye that does not require any mordants for fibres such as cotton, linen, hemp, ramie, etc. Cotton, however, was not introduced to Japan until Portuguese or Chinese traders brought it in the mid 15th century. It then became a preferred textile by the beginning of the Edo period (1615-1868 CE). At first cotton was reserved for the ruling class and only later during the Edo period did it become a commonly found textile throughout Japan.


I chose silk as it is a luxury textile in contrast to cotton and has a strong historical and current presence in Japan. Silk came to Japan via China through Korea around 200–400 CE and became a strong economic and cultural component of the society.  At first, as usual, it was only worn by the upper classes, but as it gained more use as a luxury fabric, rural families were permitted to start their own sericulture to help with the silk production. Japanese silk production continues today, and the workshops in Nishijin, Kyoto certainly attest to it.

My project yarn construction

This project took place over a year as I did it when I had time and when it was warm enough to dye outside (I live in Vancouver, Canada).

I spun the white/ecru cotton roving using a variety of spinning implements, ranging from portable (a takhli and Russian support spindles) to less so (an Indian book charkha) and, finally, an Ashford Joy spinning wheel. I spun the cotton Z, plied it S, and maintained a pretty consistent 18 WPI. I finished the cotton yarn by simmering it in a pot of water for about half an hour. I then let it cool, rinsed it, and air dried it.

During the summer, I set up an indigo dye bath using Indian indigo or common indigo (indigo tinctoria) from Maiwa as I couldn’t access the Japanese pesicaria tinctoria (formerly polygonum tinctoria). I made a vat reduction using thiourea dioxide and lye for the dye. I had no problems with the vat and, as usual, the magic of cotton turning from tan to green-grey-blue to true blue was exciting.

The Nishijin area in Kyoto is a place where I can spend days happily getting lost as I try and find my way from one amazing textile museum/store/workshop to another. Just a few of the ones I sampled: Fureaikan – Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts, Nishijin Textile Center, Orinasu-kan Museum, Kodai uzen-en and Gallery. I took a workshop at the Tsuzure-ori weaving studio. After this varied viewing, participating and some reflection, I decided to include in my yarn some spun silk thread bought at the Nishijin Textile Center to acknowledge the role of industrialization in silk weaving.

My Japanese travel yarn is now complete and I have a spun physical memory to remind me of these different textile themes. In the future, I will make other travel yarns depicting other Japanese travel elements, but I’m happy to have my first one based on textile themes. With some of this yarn, I’m going to make a small woven coaster and place it in my travel journal along with a picture of a cup of tea! What travel yarns could rise from your journeys?

Joanne Nakonechny likes spinning – 10 years of it – and travelling. New ideas of yarn intrigue her: What if I thought about music as colours? What about ideas as different types of spinning material? What if. . .  These are the questions that keep Joanne spinning; oh yes, and her stash!

PLY Magazine believes that Black lives matter, as well as LBGTQI+ lives. Those most vulnerable and persecuted in our communities deserve our love and support. Please be good to each other.

Did you know we also have a monthly PLY newsletter? Sign up here!

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