How to teach yourself to spin

February 5, 2013 at 7:19 am Leave a comment



Merino on the bobbin

Following on from my last post about choosing your first spinning wheel, here’s a little bit about what you might expect when you get it home.

That is, if you happen to be like me and have had no experience whatsoever! In the hope that my stumblings might prove useful, and give you a better experience than the ill-fated Aurora below, here’s my experience, and what I gleaned from it.


The mystery of Sleeping Beauty’s curse: contrary to the Disney version, there is nothing on a spinning wheel that you could prick your finger on.

I had my first lesson in the carpark where I met both seller and wheel for the first time. It looked so easy when she showed me, meditative even. I could do that for sure. How hard could it be?

(About as hard as trying to to learn to ride a unicycle whilst spinning a plate on a stick and juggling fairyfloss simultaneously.)


So I got home and promptly proceeded to drive myself bonkers trying to join 3 inch lengths of dodgily carded fibre straight off the backs of our own alpacas, while watching YouTube clips of people doing mysteriously relaxing and easy-looking things with their wheels that in no way resembled my own hilarious attempts to get the wheel to keep spinning, while also trying to either push the yarn into the orifice or having the stuff yanked out of my hands, all while swearing like a fishwife.


Bluefaced Leicester/silk blend, spun into a 2ply

It wasn’t until I folded my hands in my lap and just treadled for a few minutes, and experimented with speeds, that I found there was a minimum speed to keep the wheel moving, and that there was a certain point in the treadle that required an extra bit of push.

Once my foot learned the rhythm and became familiar enough that I could pedal on autopilot, I could concentrate on figuring out drafting. Unfortunately, the minimum treadle speed was still faster than my maximum drafting speed at this stage.

It took me a good while to figure this out too!

Eventually (this may have been the point where I was sobbing and banging my head against my knees, I forget now, but I know it happened at least once) I asked my forbearing husband to spin the wheel for me so I could concentrate on the drafting process. At this point I discovered that the reason the fibre wasn’t drafting was because my hands were closer together than the length of the fibre, so I was effectively holding onto both ends at once. And after a little bit more practice I found that if I didn’t make any sudden movements, the fibre seemed to grab onto itself and ‘stretch out’ rather than pull out tufts that had to be joined together. Something clicked.


A collection of various 2 and 3 ply yarns spun from pre-dyed roving. The 2ply creates a cheerful barber-pole effect, while the 3ply gives a more subtle gradual variation in colour.

Somewhere round about here I also bought some preprocessed roving and stuffed the alpaca back in its bag in the corner (where, I regret to say, most of it is still huddled, collecting dust..) and this was when it started to become fun. If I pulled off a long thin strip of roving I hardly had to do anything at all, it practically spun itself, and I now I could concentrate on things like how much twist to put into it, and how thick or thin to make it. Joy!


Once you start creating singles, then you get to experiment with plying them together, and suddenly the possibilities are boundless.

This is when it becomes addictive. You become the weir in a river of colour flowing through your fingers, swirling onto the bobbin at whatever rate you choose, stretching it out in a mysterious stream of fibres, while your fingers learn to understand what to do automatically. It is beautiful, mesmerising, and captures your attention, until it becomes natural and relaxing. Spinning can be meditation!


From roving to scarf – a polwarth/silk roving from Three Waters Farm becomes a delicate wrap

So for anyone in a similar position, trying to teach themselves, here are some points to consider.

  1. Just pedal for a while without doing anything else, to find the rhythm of your particular wheel. Once you’ve got the rhythm, treadle as slowly as you comfortably can for while in the early stages of learning, this will make everything easier.
  2. Start with the easiest, most prepared fibre you can get your hands on! Choose a roving that you won’t feel precious about and plan to just have fun with it and not worry about the end result. Split it into a few thinner strips if you find you’re spinning very thick, or not so thin if it keeps breaking.
  3. Tension. If the first 2 steps took a week, this step took a good couple of weeks. Without trying to spin, start treadling your wheel, and play with the tension. On my Ashford, I had to loosen the drive band til it was slipping (ssshhing) and then tighten it til it just grabbed. I found the brake band was fiddly too, and had to ‘just catch’ This meant turning the tension knob literally a few millimetres at a time. A quarter of a turn was usually too big a difference. I knew I had it right when I could hold the fibre and pull it back off the bobbin and let it draw back on at will. (I was only practicing for a bit in the evenings)
  4. Once you’re up and spinning, then you can start to worry about how much twist is going into your yarn. Experiment with treadle speed in relation to how fast you let the yarn onto the bobbin. (Note the word let. If it’s pulling in by itself, you may either have the tension wound too tight, or possibly be pedaling too fast.)
  5. Try not to strangle your fibre. Hold it lightly enough that it can stretch out and grab onto itself, and just firmly enough that it doesn’t get slurped up by the bobbin. Keep your hands further apart than the length of the fibre.
  6. Keep going! It may not be fun at first, but persistence really pays off!

Good luck, and happy spinning!




Entry filed under: Crafty Stuff, Spinning and Knitting. Tags: , .

How to choose your first spinning wheel Poetic Thursday #1

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