Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Spinning for Socks, part II

I'm trying to get better (more consistent and thinner) at spinning sock yarn.

In addition to the things I've learned about setting up my wheel I've come up with a sort of training program for my spinning. Here's a description of what I'm trying. Note that I have only a very basic wheel, only a single treadle, no lace flyers or high-speed whorls or anything. So spinning thin is going to be slow! I figure I want to learn how to do it first, before I go out and start souping up my machine to make the stuff faster.

First, I measure the WPI of my favourite sock yarn and I knit up a small sample (20st x 20 rows or so) on my favourite sock needles (2mm).  I measure the gauge and make a little card that I write everything on, and tie it to the sample. This sample is the "goal". Then, I start spinning!

1. I purchased a hank of (cheap) sock roving (100g) from KnitPicks ("stroll roving" - undyed) - a superwash merino / nylon blend. I made it CHEAP to be sure that I wouldn't mind screwing it up. This is not going to turn into socks. This is for practise only! Note that this particular blend is quite slippery and very fine. I find that it's hard to spin woolen, so the short forward draft I described here is what I find easiest to use. If you use different roving (ex. something crimpy like southdown) you might find that a different drafting technique suits better.

2. I divided the 100g hank into 5-10 small portions and am making "mini-skeins", trying different spinning and plying techniques. I started with double, then moved to triple, and finally 4-ply trials. I've found this book particularly helpful for yarn construction ideas.

3. I use a small portion to spin up fine singles. Then, I measure the WPI. I visualize sewing thread while spinning and try to make it as thin as possible. Then, I ply it and measure the WPI again. Then I wash the yarn and when it's dry, measure the WPI yet again. Then I critically examine the yarn. Is it thin enough? Well-plied? Strong enough? I take my sock knitting needles and use the yarn to knit up a small swatch, and I measure the gauge of my knitting when I'm done. I write down all these measurements (WPI counts, knitting gauge, needle size) on a little paper tag, and tie it to the cast-off tail of the sample. I unply part of the cast-on tail so I can see the singles and/or the 2-ply.  Now I can use this sample to guide me in my next spinning session!

4. Then I move on to the next small portion . If I didn't like my first sample, I can adjust the number of treadles per inch of drafting (which changes the amount of twist in the yarn). If there's too much twist, I draft out a longer piece per treadle. If there's not enough twist, I draft out less per treadle. I find it easier to adjust what my hands are doing, than my feet. Somehow, my feet get into a particular rhythm/speed with the treadling, which is hard to break out of (must be all the biking I do). Once I'm satisfied with how thin I'm getting the yarn, I try a different plying technique. I first tried chain or Navajo plying, and then measured all the WPIs again and knit up another sample.  I'm not very happy with my Navajo plied yarn - it's pretty inconsistent!

 [Navajo/chain-plied 3 ply sample - note thick/thin parts which don't pass muster with me]

As I've gone through the portions, I find I'm spinning thinner and thinner. The focus on the measurements really seems to drive home that I need to take very small "bites" when drafting.

I've even tried  a cable-4 ply:  first spin the singles  Z, then (over)ply 2 singles together in the opposite direction (S), and then ply that back on itself in the Z-direction. I find it easiest to do the first ply to the "balance point" (ie. make a nice-looking balanced yarn), and spin the yarn onto another bobbin, spinning it up to double the amount of twist (rather than trying to overtwist on the first go-round). I've found that 4-ply cable produces really nice even yarn for me, even if it is still a bit on the thick side for my expectations. It's the most consistent I've done.The knit sample has a larger gauge than the 3-ply (I need to spin even thinner to get the same gauge!).

[4-ply cable sample in merino-nylon]

I'm still working on this program and have a collection of little knit samples now, and I think I've got a lot better feel for how to spin thin. I'm now trying a different type of wool (southdown), which is actually not easy to spin worsted because it's so crimpy and short. So I'm modifying my draw to a sort of "short backwards draw"; letting the twist get into the drafting zone but not drawing out a big long thread, only an inch or 2. The resulting knit sample feels quite different from the merino sock blend; it's a lot coarser and not as supple, even if the WPI and knit gauge is about the same. It is springy and very, very elastic. It's kind of like the difference between a piece of wool jersey and a piece of lycra!

[4-ply cable sample in Southdown - each of those threads is 2-ply]


  1. Wow! You are really getting the hang of this!!
    I have improved my singles too; I found that by using a long draw backwards I can get my merino thin enough to Navajo ply into a decent yarn. It's still not fine enough for dress socks, but I am making all my own boot/work socks from it now and they are heavenly to wear.
    I would like to link your post to a post of mine again if that's OK; You explain things so clearly.