Friday, August 9, 2013

Spinning for Socks

I'm not an expert spinner by any means, but I've been doing a lot of it lately. My focus is to spin sock yarn that I think is thin enough, sturdy enough, and even enough to use for regular-wear socks. I'm aiming for a 3 or 4-ply fingering weight yarn: this means spinning 1.2-1.6 km of string from 100g, or a WPI of 60 or more on the singles. I'm not there yet...but here's a description of what I'm doing. Maybe it'll help others?

First off, the equipment: a second-hand Ashford Traditional (henceforth referred to as "the Traddy") with a flyer from the 80's - that means, a maximum ratio of a little over 10:1 (one treadle makes the flyer spin around 10 times). I measured it by tying a piece of yarn on one flyer arm and counting the rotations as I slowly turned the main wheel once. It's a standard single-treadle, single drive, scotch tension machine. So pretty basic stuff. The machine runs well - it purrs like a kitten! Make sure whatever you're using does,'re going to have to spin a few km's of thread on the thing! On the Traddy, it's very important that:
  • the maidens are properly aligned and tightened. Mine are tight - I don't move them because I can lift the bobbin out (the back shaft-holder is U-shaped). You will notice bobbin chatter and/or stiff treadling if your maidens aren't aligned. It's OK if they "toe in" just a titch. Play with it and you'll soon figure out the best alignment. For me, this is usually where the problem is. Although my maidens are tight, they still move a bit and every once in a while I need to rotate them back into alignment.
  • the wheel and the whorl are lined up so that the drive band is not angled. You adjust this by moving the mother-of-all back and forth. Lift it up and you'll see there are screws you can loosen to do this.
  • the drive band is properly tensioned - on the Traddy this is adjusted by tilting the mother-of-all up or down using the big screw ball. If it's too loose, the drive band slips, and if it's too tight, you'll find it hard to treadle. I usually overtighten it, then back off until it just-barely-doesn't-slip. (I've got a cotton drive band, not one of those plastic/elastic ones.)
  • the bobbin should spin unhindered and not bind - this was a problem for me at first because my 2nd-hand bobbins had accumulated years of oil, dust, and spinning fiber down in that hole. I had to ream them out with sandpaper wrapped around a pencil.
For some reason, I don't find I need to oil my Traddy much. May have to do with our We(s)t Coast climate. I never, ever oil the flyer shaft where the bobbins ride. In fact I've cleaned it with rubbing alcohol. My bobbins simply do not fit tightly enough to need lubrication and I don't want to them to fill up with goo again. I will very occasionally oil the 2 holders on the maidens (where the flyer shaft actually makes contact). I think I've oiled the main wheel shaft once - when I got it.

To spin fine, I've found I need to do the following adjustments:
  • loosen the tension waaaaaaay down. Basically, I slacken it completely so that the tension band (fishing line) is just laying on the bobbin. Then I tighten just a teeny little bit, and try spinning the empty bobbin while holding the leader. The leader should suck in when I let go, but it shouldn't pull on my hand at all when I hold it. In fact, I should be able to pull out the leader while spinning.
  • Put the drive band on the fast whorl (for me that's 10:1).
 In terms of drafting, here are some things I've found helpful:
  • for maximum control, I've been doing a short forward draw, drafting about 1-2 inches at a time and then sliding my fingers back.
  • I'm trying to keep to a rhythm: one treadle = draft forward 1-2 inches, second treadle = slide fingers back. Repeat. I did this slowly at first until I got the rhythm. Slow treadling just means you make the yarn more slowly - as long as you keep the rhythm going you will get a consistent amount of spin to the yarn. The "2-treadles per 2 inches" seems to insert a reasonable amount of twist (not too "hard" and not too "soft"). By allowing the single to ply back on itself you can see what a 2-ply yarn would look like. Note that you can spin on a larger whorl too, but you will get less twist inserted per treadle (ie. you'll need to compensate by doing more treadles per inch of drafting). Drafting more than 2 inches means less twist gets inserted as well, and again you'll have to treadle more. You'll need to experiment with these two parameters (length of draft and # treadles per draft  for your chosen whorl size) to establish what you think is a good combination for the yarn. I can see where an even smaller whorl would be handy: it lets you draft out more with the same amount of treadling and just speeds up the process.
  • I take small bites of fiber when drafting. Since I'm aiming to spin something that resembles sewing thread, I'm thinking "30 fibers per bite". The drafting triangle should be translucent, in fact almost invisible. This is not easy but with practise and a little focus I've been able to get there. It does get easier.
  • keep that tension down!! There is nothing worse that trying to draft a fine yarn and having it ripped out of your fingers by too strong a take-up. Some people recommend fancy lacing patterns on their flyers to help reduce the take-up, but I've not done this. Feel free to try it though! The tension changes a bit as the bobbin fills up; it lessens as more yarn accumulates. You might need to adjust it.
[take small, short, bites when drafting - think 30 hairs at a time!]
While spinning, these are things I've found helpful:
  •  make a control sample. This takes like 10 seconds - let some of your single ply back on itself, tie a knot in it and break the single. Tie the sample to your wheel somewhere.
  • change wind-on location frequently - you want the bobbin to wind evenly and not in giant humps. This is because when your single breaks (and it will!) it'll bury itself in any humps and you'll be sorely tried to find the end again. You don't wanna go there, believe me.
  •  While you're moving the wind-on location, you can take the time to do a little back-ply test to check for consistency! Compare it with your control sample and make any required adjustments (usually only to your head: "draft smaller amounts of fiber, you ninny!"). Do this every 5-10 minutes. Seriously. It'll make you more consistent and drive you to thin-ness faster.
  • get yourself a WPI tool and use it. Check the WPI of your singles and of your control sample.
  • I've found those WPI templates on iPhones or on cardboard to be useless - >50 WPI singles are too thin to be compared to a picture with any kind of accuracy.
I'll be posting more on this topic as I progress.


  1. Thanks heaps for this post; I will be trying some of these tips today to see if I can improve my sock yarn. Do you mind if I share this post on my blog? Providing I can work out how to do that.

  2. Heyhey, no problem. Maybe easiest is to link to it?