Study for Meditation Mat

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Handspun Tapestry Weaving

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Do Your Worsted: Some Theories About Making String

Yoga people take note: I’m about to dive down into the Rabbit Hole of the spinning world in this post, so although I will eventually link my journey back to yoga and meditation here, you may want to take a little down time or, at least, get comfortable while you watch me jump.  The Rabbit Hole of which I’m writing is a subject which can trigger great discussion and controversy among spinners.  That subject is Worsted Spinning and How to Do It.

When I began spinning, back when the Earth was cooling, I had few teachers near me and no internet, so my practice was developed through experimentation and the wonderful world of print medium.  I absorbed as much information as I could from people I met.  The rest of my information was gathered from books and magazines.  Time and time again, I turned to writers, known authorities on spinning techniques, most of whom I never met and a few I would be lucky to learn from as the years passed.  These people include Paula Simmons, Mabel Ross, Peter Teal, Allen Fannin, Alden Amos, Patricia Baines, Jane Fournier, Priscilla Gibson-Roberts, Ted Carson and many, many more.  Armed with advice from these spinners, I spun and spun, and through trial and error, learned to make the yarns I wanted.

Now, I would say that I’m pretty much of a “Woollen Spinner Gal” and a process-oriented one, at that.  From time to time, I do like to spin worsted yarns, especially when I need warp yarns for weaving, when I require a strong, lustrous yarn or when I’m spinning a fibre with a lovely, long staple.  Back in the day, I discovered the Short Draw technique, wherein the spinner keeps twist out of her fibre supply until her fibres are drafted.  When used with a combed fibre preparation, this drafting technique produces a dense, smooth, lustrous yarn (in comparison to woollen spun yarn). 

Way back when, if you used a short draw with combed fibres, kept the twist out of the drafting zone and compressed the air out of the yarn, you produced worsted spun yarn.  If you used a long draw (which allows twist into the fibres as you draft) with carded fibres, your yarn was said to be “woollen spun.”  There was a huge range of possibilities between those two points and it was left to the spinner to decide what technique she should use to spin the yarns she needed.  Some authorities promoted particular styles, but perhaps because I was working from print material and had a lot of time to experiment until the next issue of SpinOff magazine arrived at my door, with its updates on what new information was available to order, I never felt that there was one correct way to spin worsted.  I certainly never believed that, if I didn't follow Authority So and So, I would be “spinning it wrong.”  (Unless you were following Allen Fannin, who was well known for his strong views about, well, everything.)

And so it was that I adapted Short Backward Drafting as my default style for spinning worsted yarns.  SBD, in which I use my right hand to hold and pull back on the fibres and my left hand near the orifice to guide and smooth the twist in the yarn, is physically more comfortable for me.  I find that I can control my drafting length more effectively in SBD because I use my body as a natural stop. (When my left hand reaches my solar plexus, it marks the stopping point of my drafting length.) The pinching and drafting forward action of Short Forward Draft hurts my thumb and index fingers.  No matter how I position my body, my arm, neck and shoulder strain when I use SFD, so ergonomically, this is not the technique for me.  I also find that using Short Forward Draft invariably causes more inconsistency than using Short Backward Draft; as I draft forward, I hesitate slightly at the end of the draft and that hesitation produces a tiny slub, which perhaps only I notice, in my singles. This may be due to the fact that SFD is uncomfortable or it may simply be because I’m exhibiting Observer Bias, but no matter how much I practice, Short Forward Draft doesn’t work well for my worsted spinning.

This is perfectly fine, according to my “ancient” (i.e., late 1960’s, 1970’s) texts.  In fact, back in the day, most of my books promoted Short Backwards Draft as the most efficient way to spin worsted and worsted-type yarns.  Nola and Jane Fournier comment that Short Backward Draft is “least likely to produce lumps and bumps (p. 203/4, In Sheep’s Clothing),” while well-known spinners such as Peter Teal and Patricia Baines recommend Short Backward Draft for worsted spinning.  Others, such as Paula Shull and Alden Amos, write of using a Short Draw technique without specifying back or forward.  For a really interesting perspective on the subject of worsted/woollen and everything in between, look up what Rita Buchanan has to say.

Sometime, fairly late in my spinning career, I began to notice a shift.  I’m not sure of its origin—I suspect, but don’t know, that this shift developed with the internet and our now almost instant access to information.  Not only is information easily accessible, what is available often seems to be of equal value; the person who has been spinning for five minutes can post about her discoveries as easily as someone who has been exploring spinning for a lifetime.  People often don't back up their findings with references to outside authorities or explain why they work the way they do. Observations are posted as fact. Many people don’t allow for the effects of Observer Bias—if they've discovered something, it must be so.  In the spinning world, this has led to the promotion of Short Forward Draft as the preferred method for obtaining a “true” worsted yarn.

This shift wouldn't concern me, usually.  Short Forward Draw is a good option for worsted spinning for many, many spinners.  Fashions come and go in everything and if my preferred worsted spinning style dates me as out of style, well, I’m usually there anyway.  What does worry me is the common belief that Short Forward Draft is the traditional way to spin worsted.  Some knowledgeable spinners are promoting it as the best and only way to spin true worsted yarns—if you can’t or won’t use forward draw, you’re “doing it wrong.”  I’ve even been told that spinners should not be taught and not allowed to use Short Backward Draw because it is not possible to produce true worsted yarns using that technique.

Here’s the thing (I did promise to get back to yoga): in yoga, we speak of Right Knowledge and Wrong Knowledge.  In very simple terms, Right Knowledge occurs when we know something to be fact because we have experimented and tested it for ourselves.  Wrong Knowledge is something we know to be true, but which is actually incorrect.  “The world is flat,” is an example of Wrong Knowledge—no matter how many people believed this to be true, our facts were misguided.  Currently, we know that the Earth is round and that’s an example of Right Knowledge.  It is for now, at least, although future experimentation can change Right Knowledge into Wrong Knowledge in the blink of an eye.  We are more likely to come to Right Knowledge if we explore and test ideas and theories for ourselves.

So, here’s a challenge for you:  no matter what you believe about how worsted yarns are best spun, do some testing for yourself.  Challenge your notions about drafting techniques and try as many methods for spinning worsted yarns as you can imagine. See what works best for you.  Read up on what opposing sides have to say about why they spin the way they do.  Question Authority. 

To start you off, I’ll give you a heads-up on some of the people who either have promoted Short Backward Draft for worsted spinning or simply speak of using either short draw technique for worsted yarns.  Those people include Alden Amos, Enid Anderson, Patricia Baines, Abby Franquemont, Amelia Garripoli, Paula Shull and Nola and Jane Fournier.  Note that I’m not giving you precise references, although I do have specific works and page citations at hand.  Nor am I claiming that these people still hold to the views I found in their written works or that they are claiming to have found “the best” way to spin worsted yarns.  In the interest of fairness, although not balance, here are the names of some well-known spinners who promote the Short Forward Draw for worsted spinning: Beth Smith, Judith MacKenzie McCuin, Lee Juven, Jacey Boggs. 

Read, explore, discover for yourself.  Keep Observer Bias in mind. Trust no one. That includes me.

It's all just string and there are many ways to spin it!



  1. Love, love, love your post. Your thoughts echo my sentiments exactly!
    Thank you


    1. Thank you, for all your support over the years!

  2. I totally agree with your "way back when" definitions. I use short forward draw to spin worsted because it's more comfortable for me. Short backward draw feels awkward to me. If I'm using a backward draw I want it to be with a large motion to spin woollen. Our bodies are all different. I would bet that I could put my worsted spun (forward draw) yarn beside your worsted spun yarn (backward draw) and an observer of the two wouldn't know the difference because both were spun from top using a short draw.

  3. That would be my guess. I hope that people come to conclusions about string (and the world) through personal experience and not because they were told that "this is how it is."

  4. As a spinner of 33 years, I totally agree w/ your observations. BTW, Margaret Stove also uses a short backward draft....or at least she did when I took her workshop about 15 years ago, and in her book on spinning merino and fine wools.

  5. Right now, my evidence is leaning towards SBD as the preferred technique for worsted spinning, but that may be because of my own biases. It always makes me nervous when someone says, "This must be done like this!"