Thursday, August 22, 2013

Some Thoughts on Fine Spinning, or, Setting Goals

In the good ole days (as in, before 1750), when there were no spinning factories with ring-spinners, and the wool "industrial complex" (which was very extensive and hugely profitable) was based on folks spinning at home, there were standards.

In Britain, the standards were based on how many "hanks" a "competent spinner" could spin from a given fleece. Different sheep breeds of course have different wool characteristics, and some lend themselves to finer spinning than others. Breeds were graded according to their spin count, which was how many of these standard hanks could be spun from 1 pound of fleece. The spin count unit can still be found and it is actually quite useful for spinners. For wool producers, it is being phased out in favour of the "micron" system (which uses various high-tech systems to measure the diameter of the wool hairs for a breed standard).  Here are some examples of both systems in use for different breeds. That link states, for instance, that Southdown has a spin count of 56-60s. This means that the spinning standard of the 1750 was 56-60 570 yard hanks from a pound of fleece. (note: of course, this assumes that the sheep breed hasn't changed over the years, and that today's standard is the same as in 1750...which may be stretch for some of the fine-wool breeds. Southdown isn't one of those though.).

Now comes the math (you knew it would come!)...

Let's take that Southdown. This is what I'm trying to spin fine, currently. If I were a competent spinner from 1750, I would be able to produce 56 x 570 yd of singles from 1 lb of fleece. That's 31,360 yards / pound (usually written ypp) or about 63 meters/gram. For perspective: fingering weight yarn is 4 meters per gram (400m/100 g); if it's 4-ply, each of these plies will be roughly 16 meters / gram. So modern commerical singles are four times thicker than what was being produced by hand in 1750. Yowsa. (well, actually, that's not exactly right. They aren't 4x thicker, they're 4x lower grist. Grist does not equal thickness.)

What's that in wraps per inch? If I crack my Alden Amos book, he gives a formula:

WPI = sqrt ( ypp ) / 1.10 (for worsted spun singles)
WPI = sqrt ( ypp ) / 1.16 (for woolen spun singles)

So plugging in the numbers, I get that Southdown singles, worsted spun to the standard, would have been 160 WPI. OK, I thought I was getting there with my 60 WPI singles. Ha.

My spinning class (which, in retrospect, wasn't really as much a "class" as a "supervised playground" - and yes, I had a great time! Wouldn't be here if I hadn't've taken it!) in no way covered how to achieve this kind of spinning. I've not seen a course in my City on this type of spinning. None of the spinners I know, can do this (although admittedly I don't know that many). As a full-time working person with no car and 2 teenagers, I'm kind of limited in seeking out other teachers/mentors, so I'm kind of on my own. Luckily I've got a library nearby and there's the InterWebz.

 I strongly suspect the following:
  • "recreational" spinning wheels aren't set up to produce this kind of single, on a sustained basis, without a titanic struggle
  • commerically produced roving from my LYS is not going to allow me to spin this fine "out of the box"
  • plying such singles is different from plying low-WPI stuff and will undoubtedly require additional processing steps
I suspect these things because I am at 60 WPI with that Southdown now, which is commercially-prepped top, and I am finding that:
  • I am maxxed out on the Traddy at it's highest setting (ratio around 10:1), treadling at 2 treadles per second (I timed myself last night. The machine is buzzing). I cannot treadle faster. Production at this speed is slow, and, more importantly, not limited by my drafting ability. I want more speed (and am doing research on how to get it). I suspect I will start to hit built-in limits of the spinning wheel as I progress: things like: wind resistance on the flyer, the maximum power that can be delivered via the drive band without it breaking, friction at the various contact points. Things are going to get technical!
  • measuring WPI at higher counts is not possible using the often-advocated rule of "gently wind on while keeping the threads just touching". This is quite simply impossible to perform with such thin threads with any consistency. I have started using AA's technique of "pack to refusal" instead, and at least then I can get consistent results. In any case I'm not trying to match "laceweight" numbers. I'm already off the standard chart. I figure if I'm going to use AA's formulas, I should be using his techniques as well, for an "internally consistent" approach.
  • I am finding small nebs in my commercially prepped roving, and these are impeding drafting. It is bearable right now, but as I get finer I can see that this will become an issue, and I will have to fix the prep, especially if I start speeding up so that my drafting speed becomes the limiting factor! Combs / cards are going to have to appear at some point. Right now, I have no idea how to use 'em.
  • Plying is going to become an issue. Right now, I can comfortably cable-ply because this involves only 2 strands at every step. Triple-plying is a twisty nightmare already with my 60-WPI singles and my crappy, untensioned kate. If I want more plies I will have to tame the twist on the singles (blocking them), which will also involve rewinding them (I will need a bobbin winder). I will need a good tensioned kate.
My next goal is ~90 WPI singles. My Ultimate Goal is a fine, fine sock yarn, and I want to be able to knit thin sport socks that will stand up to a ton of abuse. I am getting sick of spending $20 on a pair of "smartwool" socks from my local SportEmporium, only to wear them out in my cycling shoes after a season. I expect to have to adjust my knitting technique as well. We shall see.

I am drawing very, very heavily on Alden Amos' tome on handspinning. Also I must credit this blog, by a gentleman who has traveled far ahead on the fine spinning path and is an engineer (and gets quite technical). While he seems to attract "haters", he provides, free of charge, a fantastic amount of practical information.


  1. Thanks for the links, and your posts; they increase my spinning knowledge every time I read them.
    I learned to spin using a drop spindle and unwashed wool direct from a fleece (no prep).
    I now have access to raw fleece of various kinds (I have sheep and some of my friends do too) as well as raw alpaca from a local lady and cotton in the boll from my sister (who works in the industry as a grower) I guess you could say I'm fibre rich (it's all raw, so I'm filthy rich).
    I do a lot of preparation before I spin; washing and/or dying the fleece, then combing or carding into a usable consistency. It's all fun though.
    It is really interesting to feel the differences between the different breeds of sheep as you spin.

  2. Yeah, I too started out on a drop spindle, convinced that I would never buy a wheel. Well. That lasted 3 weeks. And look at my obsession now! I still spindle and love it, but not for really fine stuff.
    Jealous of your fiber sources. I'm sure I will have to venture there at some thing at a time though.

  3. hmm, not good news. I'm a brand new knitter, spinner, fleece prepper. This is all *in service* to the sock-obsession; it's *all* about prepping worsted, spinning superfine singles, plying x4 for sockyarn, with some mohair in there for extra durability. I'm disappointed to read that drop spindling won't get me super fine singles. Is it limited by the weight of the spindle; I have top whorl 1 oz spindle. Is this far too heavy for making sock yarn singles? Desperate minds need to know.

  4. I've not tried to spin sock-singles on a drop-spindle, but I'm pretty sure it can be done. A 1-oz spindle is likely at the heavy end; you could try going lighter (lots of lighter spindles available on Etsy), or - and this I **have** tried - use a supported spindle. That takes a bit of getting used to, but it is ideally suited for thin singles. Plying thin singles on a spindle is a royal pain, especially if you are trying to do 3 or 4-ply. I'd recommend cable-plying so you never have to handle more than 2 plies at a time. For thin singles, you need to be able to tension them somehow as you ply, or it gets very uneven and tangly. I've not explored the equipment required for plying from a spindle...