Study for Meditation Mat

Study for Meditation Mat
Handspun Tapestry Weaving

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Round, Round We Go: On Spinning Art Yarns

A Basket Full of Goodies (Mostly)
Spinners often refer to yarns that didn’t work out quite as expected as “art yarns.”  It’s a cute euphemism, but not accurate.  Definitions of what makes a “designer/art” yarn vary, so let me begin by stating my ideas of what moves a yarn into the “art/designer” category.

Any yarn outside the usual smooth singles or plied yarns can be an art yarn.  These yarns can be created by the nature of the fibres or elements in them, spinning techniques, plying methods or a combination of these.   I consider yarns to be the medium I use to produce my work; just as handmade paints are not the painting itself, yarn, no matter how pretty, exciting or interesting, is the means to an end.  It follows that I want my art yarns to be structurally stable and useful, at least in theory.  (If you want to spin doll heads and barbed wire into your yarns, please do, but if I can’t figure out a way to make an end product with a yarn, I won’t spin it.  Or at least, I won’t spin much of it.)  Not only should yarn be useful, it should be reproducible.  I have my share of tiny skeins of this and that, but these yarns eat up a lot of stash (a bonus in my case) and I do like to make something larger than a cowl, once in a while.

For Edward: 400 Metres of Thick and Thin Felted Yarn

Rather than allowing you to throw spinning rules out the window, I find that spinning art yarns requires more attention to twist per inch, grist, fibre properties, finishing techniques and wheel control. You also need some idea of an end use for your finished product.

So, let’s consider some things before we begin our art yarn adventures, starting with your wheel.  (Yes, you can spin art yarns on spindles.  Many people do this and I have, too, but this is one of the few times that I find spinning wheels more efficient.)  No one wheel can spin everything and this applies even more with designer yarns.  If your interest is in big, bold and beautiful, you’re going to need a bigger boat wheel.  (Okay, or use a spindle.  You got me.  Let’s pretend that spindles are out of the picture right now.  They’re buried under your yarn stash.)  You can spin those slubs, coils and loops on your wheel with the tiny guide and small orifice, but you’ll have to work on a smaller scale.

Now is the time to dust off your knowledge of wheel ratios.  Don’t just rely on the manufacturer’s guide; all wheels have variable tolerances, so determine your ratios for yourself.  Tie a string to the drive wheel hub, move your drive wheel band to your smallest whorl, (assuming you’re working with a flyer lead wheel), mark the flyer and count the number of times your flyer turns for a single turn of the drive wheel.  Mark that number on your whorl.  Do this for every whorl you have.  The basic rule is: the smaller the whorl, the more twists per inch added with the same treadling rate. 

It’s also important to remember the direction of twist you use in a given yarn because so many of these techniques rely on plying your base yarns, either with other hand spun or with commercial yarns.  You may always spin clockwise (Z) and ply counterclockwise (S), but don’t assume that’s the case with someone else's yarns, especially commercially manufactured laceweights on cones. Check the twist of an unknown yarn, along with its fibre content, before you use it in your finished product.

Blended Batts, Autowrapped and Chain Plied

It follows that, if you know your ratio and your treadling rate, you can determine twists per inch by treadling at a constant rate over a given length of yarn.  If, for example, your ratio is 2:1 and you treadle twice over 10 cm/4 inches of spun yarn, you would produce a yarn with 2 twists x 2 treadles or 4 twists per 10cm/4 inches. 4 twists over 4 inches means your yarn has a single twist per 2.5 cm/1 inch, which will make a very soft yarn.  (Someone is bound to catch me on my math skills here.  I just know it.)

You don’t need an exact tpi count, but you do need to understand how twists per inch affect yarn hand and behaviour.  If you are planning to leave that very soft yarn as a singles, you may be okay using only one tpi. (You’ll likely need more to produce a stable yarn, but for math’s sake, work with me here.) If you are going to ply that yarn back on itself and you want to maintain the single twist per inch, you will have to add approximately one more twist per inch to the singles.   Practice treadling at a constant rate.  Many of us speed up as we get comfortable with our spinning, so be mindful of falling back into your default spinning zone.  Using a metronome can help keep you on track.

You’ll make better yarns if you understand fibre properties, staple length, etc.  If you are planning to felt that soft yarn to stabilize it, then you need to know that superwash wool fibre will not felt, no matter how you process the yarn.  If you use superwash in a soft, slubby yarn, you may want to add more twists and make smaller slubs.  You want larger slubs, you say?  Then use Blue-faced Leicester, Merino or another soft fibre that hasn’t been treated to resist felting.

Many of the spinning and plying techniques we use in producing art yarns rely on overtwist or irregular spinning, plying, and additional elements, which can make even soft fibres feel harsher or harder than they would if you were using them in a basic plied yarn.  Supercoils use the technique of pushing a base yarn along a core while you treadle your wheel.  By its nature, supercoiled yarn is firm stuff.  If you want to use it in a garment, then you will want a softer fibre for the coiled yarn.  If the yarn is for a wall piece or a bag, then a tougher fibre may be appropriate.

Committing a few basic spinning rules to memory will keep you in the moment, mindful of your spinning, so that you don’t drift off and discover that where you began is not where you are now.  Right now, you want to stay focused and pay attention. Knowing some rules will help you to break them, thoughtfully, a skill you’ll need when you explore this exciting world of art and designer yarns.

My First Attempt at Supercoils


  1. Those are all pretty but your supercoils are gorgeous! I'm looking forward to the class.

  2. Thanks, Susan! I hope it will be a fun class.

  3. Very pretty coils, Deb. A good explanation of the hows and whys of art yarn too.

  4. Great post, really informative - thank you and more please!

  5. Thank you, to both of you. So, Dianna, will we be seeing your art yarns any time soon?