Since this has been coming up a lot on Ravelry and LiveJournal, I thought I’d give a few tips that I suggest to new spinners. I combined spindle spinning and wheel spinning, since most of the tips will work for either unless noted.
1. Start with some basic, plain wool. Don’t worry about fancy blends until you’ve at least tried spinning a few times. I’m all about experimenting, but for your first forays into spinning, you should work with a good basic fiber. This gives you an idea of how fiber behaves and how spinning works, plus the wool will cling to itself. Spinning with a fancy camel/silk blend or cashmere or whatever is more likely to frustrate a new spinner, as those fibers have different properties that make them more difficult to work with. Start with alpaca or sheep’s wool.
2. Before you start spinning, take your fiber and ‘draft’ it out. You do this by pulling the fibers apart lengthwise so you have a long, thin rope-like pile. What you’ve done is called ‘pre-drafting’, and it allows you to spin without having to draft while the spindle is moving. I don’t recommend doing this forever, but it’s a good way to learn about how the spindle moves and behaves without having to worry about what your hands are doing.
3. Try this trick if you’re using a wheel for the first time (either as a new spinner or an experienced spindle spinner): get some inexpensive yarn that you don’t care about, like a thrift-store skein of Red Heart or something. Attach it to the leader on the bobbin and treadle the wheel as though you’re actually spinning. This gives you a chance to feel how much pull the wheel exerts on your hands (this is called take-up) and you have the chance to learn how different adjustments work. Experiment with the different tension knobs, treadling speeds, whorl ratios (if you have more than one), and hand movements. Go ahead and fill the bobbin. Use up the whole skein (this may require more bobbin changes) until you feel like you’ve got the hang of it. THEN try spinning with wool for real.
4. Don’t keep your hands too close together when drafting. Unless your fiber staple is VERY short, you want your hands at least 6 inches or so apart. One hand holds the fiber with about the same grip you might hold a baby bird–gentle but firm. The other pulls off a few fibers and lets the twist into them. My personal guide is that my hands are roughly the same distance apart as the length of the fiber staple and then some. If a staple is 5″ long, and my hands are only 3″ apart, that means I’m gripping both ends of the fiber with each hand. Makes it hard to pull apart when that happens.
5. Try the ‘Park & Draft’ method if you’re having a hard time coordinating your hands to what’s happening on the wheel or spindle. Leaving a few inches between the spindle and your hands, treadle or spin WITHOUT LETTING GO OF YOUR FIBER until a lot of twist has built up. Stop the spindle and secure it between your knees so it won’t dangle or untwist. Then, carefully, slide your fiber hand up and back along the pre-drafted fiber, letting twist into it. Stop about when the twist seems to stop following your hand. If you haven’t pre-drafted, this is a GREAT time to learn how to draft while spinning. The action is the same as if your spindle was moving, so try this tip a few times and then try it while the spindle is still turning.
6. Try new fibers. While I think everyone should start out with a basic wool, that doesn’t mean you have to save the interesting or fancy stuff until you’re a master. The best spinning thing that ever happened to me was the first guild meeting I ever attended where our speaker brought in samples for everyone of many different, exotic fibers. I was exposed early on to cashmere, qiviut, silk, and of course alpaca, and each one spun differently from the others. Try comparing regular merino to superwash merino. Try blends of wool and silk or mohair. Spin coarse fibers, fine fibers, short and long staples. You may discover that you absolutely love spinning silk. You might find out that the Polwarth your friend was raving about was just not your thing.
7. Have fun. Don’t obsess over your not-perfect yarn. Everyone’s yarn looked like that in the beginning! Consistency and fineness come with practice. Don’t compare yourself to someone who’s been doing it for longer than you have, or who spins every day when you might not have that kind of time to work on it. Just enjoy it. Spinning can be calming, meditative, and soothing. Don’t do everything at once.
8. Get involved! Most states have at least one or two guilds dedicated to textile work; here in Connecticut, we have the Nutmeg Spinners’ Guild. Sometimes guilds are combined, so look for weaving and knitting guilds as well. Look online for your local group. There’s also Ravelry, a social networking site just for knitters, crocheters, and spinners, as well as the LiveJournal Handspinners group. If all else fails, start your own local meetup. I belong to two SnB groups that meet at local coffeeshops like Starbucks. There’s another one in the next town that meets at a yarn shop, plus dozens of others that meet on different nights at different locations. One is even at the library! It’s great when you can learn from each other.
9. Practice. I recommend to my students that they practice for 10 minutes every single day. That’s not a long time. Even if you’re watching TV, you can do this. (Just make sure it’s not something you have to pay attention to!) Set a timer if you have to. Just practice.
Spin-Off is a print magazine published through Interweave Press. It comes out four times a year and features articles about a wide array of techniques, patterns, and history around spinning.
Ravelry is an online social networking site dedicated to knitters, crocheters and spinners. Since its inception in 2007, it has drawn millions of yarny people together and it’s still growing. In addition to a huge selection of forums, it has a Library feature to keep track of your textile books, a needle/hook counter, a Stash section where you can list your yarns just for your information or to trade/sell, and a Project list that lets you show off your latest work. Ravelry has also been counted among the best-designed sites around, as well as one of the best-run social networks on the web.
Nutmeg Spinners’ Guild is a Connecticut-based fiber guild. We meet five times per year (the first Saturday of October, December, February, April, and June). Four of those meetings feature speakers and programs about dyeing, weaving, spinning, and other textile-related topics, and we often have in-depth workshops the day after the meetings. We always welcome new members, no matter what your skill level. Someone will get you started if you just ask; feel free to contact me directly if you have any questions.