Product placement

Because S is for something else, too… “spin”.

I’ve agreed to be the first stop on Shannon Okey’s blog tour for her new book, Spin to Knit, on Sunday, October 1. You’ve probably seen the format before: author drops into blog, author answers questions/guest posts/posts an excerpt from book, either triggering an avalanche of comments or a single spam comment weeks later. We’ll be going for the author-answers-questions format, except I promise that I will not ask “what’s your favourite [noun]” or “how did you learn to spin” or “what projects does the future hold” questions. When I want to read interviews like that, I turn to Tiger Beat, thank you very much. (Is there a textile arts equivalent? If so, please don’t tell me.) Furthermore, the answers to two-thirds of those questions were already answered in the printed matter supplied with my complimentary copy of the book, which I received on Wednesday.

I suppose I’m in a unique position to review Shannon’s book, because I have never touched a spindle — drop or otherwise. I have never touched a spinning wheel. I have never made yarn or thread. I touched a silk hankie once, but that’s it. And it seems to me that the ideal acid test for any introductory book on spinning would be a total newbie attempting to spin yarn based only on the directions provided in the book…

… although I have never had any inclination to spin my own yarn. Ha! I always figured I would learn to weave before spinning because I’m more keen on creating fabric than… the stuff that gets turned into fabric. So I never turned my mind to it. (Turn! Get it?) And it’s just a bunch of rotational mechanics, right? The physics degree has to be good for something, so I also always figured that if I really needed to spin, it would come naturally to me. Except possibly for the not being clumsy part. (This also explains why I have not yet taken up needle felting.)

Oh, right, obligatory product shot, and then a preliminary review after the jump:

Having read through the book a couple of times, I’ll say that the book appears to address what I would need to know if I were to shut myself up in a well-appointed garret (with washtub and running hot water) with a spinning wheel or drop spindle and an unscoured fleece. The instructions focus on the creation of twisted singles, of course, with side trips into plying, dyeing (using the dishwasher, like the Surreal Gourmet, but not involving fish), and composing “art” yarns by adding stray bits of yarn, fleece, beads, and so on. The book also includes brief features on some American spinners of note.

Since I cannot dish without savouring the bad, here it is: upon reading, I felt that perhaps there was some information lacking, or rather, required inference on the part of the reader. There are some facts that should be self-evident to the spinner that are not necessarily obvious to a non-mechanically-minded neophyte. The steps involved in using both a drop spindle and a “traditional” spinning wheel were clearly photographed, and the parts of the tradish spinning wheel were also labeled. However, the mechanics of the spinning wheel were not detailed enough for my liking. If there is a flyer, it rotates around the bobbin, right? The reader could infer this from the brief description of different types of wheels (bobbin-led, etc.), I suppose, but the function of the flyer was not clear to me. However, I didn’t have a wheel in front of me, and for the purpose of getting a knitter to just get started making yarn, extra mechanical details are probably unnecessary. Also, if you consulted the book to answer the question, “how do I make DK weight singles versus laceweight, or how do I go about making thick-and-thin yarn?” you would not find a direct answer — I mean, duh, the rate at which you draw out fiber to be spun will affect the final thickness of the singles, but I suppose that if I could think of that question, there would be people who’d actually ask it. I’m also perplexed as to why one would want to spin from the fold; the technique is described and photographed, so I feel confident that I could try it out, but… why, exactly? Is this because you can avoid some other preparatory step?

Finally, while the book explains how to scour fleece and prepare it for spinning, I could have used more overt explanation about quantities required to make enough yarn for a project: is it normal to predraft all of the fleece needed to make yarn for a particular project, or only what is about to be spun during a single session? How much usable fleece can be obtained from a sheep — a sweater’s worth? More? Obviously, if a project requires 300 grams of worsted weight yarn, then you will need more than 300 grams of fleece to begin with; but I have no idea how much extra to allow for contingencies. I assume that in the patterns provided in the book, the quantities of fleece specified are post-skirting and scouring, and include enough extra to account for occasional flaws.

I’m not certain these criticisms are justified — I simply read the book a couple of times, and since I was lacking equipment I didn’t try to practice the instructions, but only took them… literally. And the answers to these questions would be provided by doing and by practising common sense, rather than by merely reading. This is like criticising a knitting book that fails to mention that you stick the point of the needle, rather than the head, through a loop to make a stitch. The fact remains that I feel confident that with Shannon’s book I could turn to a working spinning wheel and I could make yarn. Good yarn that I would be happy to knit with. The only truly justifiable criticism to make is that the term “Fair Isle” is taken in vain. Badly. But just once.

I’m pleased to see that the patterns, as a whole, focus on what I consider to be “usable” yarn, rather than “art” yarn, and in a range of weights; there is some yarn that I consider outlandish in the book, but it is used strictly as an accent. There are patterns for both clothing and accessories, and while they’re not difficult, they’re not dumbed down, either. Some patterns provide for the use of purchased yarn with handspun (for example, Noro in the inaccurately named “Faux Fair Isle” sweater — it’s not only not Fair Isle, it’s not even faux Fair Isle), and that’s okay. One pattern even includes the spinner’s thought process as she decided what kind of yarn to produce from the fleece, which I really appreciated. And, I have to say, that Shannon’s words made me respect the garter stitch scarf just a little more — a major accomplishment.

Anyhow, I suspect that on Sunday I’m going to be forced to attempt to make yarn, if all my time isn’t taken up transcribing the essay answers I’m demanding for my interview questions. Perhaps there will be carnage and poking people’s eyes out. One can only hope.

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5 Responses to Product placement

  1. June says:

    A few answers to your questions – not that you were looking for answers, per se, but heck, your questions are not unreasonable ones.

    I like to spin from the fold when I have combed top that I want spun in a woolen style (instead of worsted). It “lightens” the yarn by incorporating some air, scrambles the fibers a bit to improve grabbiness and structural integrity, and allows for different kinds of color separation if you are working with handpainted top. It is my favorite way to spin silk.

    Mabel Ross’s books (Essentials of Yarn Design) details how to make the different thickness of yarn with NASA-like precision. She covers the number of plies, thickness of singles, degree of twist for singles and plying, etc. Very good for the geek spinner.

    I prefer to prepare all of the fiber before I actually begin spinning. (You wrote “predraft” but I think you meant “prepare”?) Thus, it is washed, dyed, and carded or combed before my foot hits the treadle. This ensures consistency in the yarn – otherwise, some fiber might be less clean (sticky), different dye lots, some batts are knottier than others, etc. and these all make for slightly different yarn.

    The amount of wool per sheep depends on a few things – primarily the size of the sheep! A cutie-pie Shetland may produce only 2 lbs of raw wool, whereas a massive Romney ram could provide 12+ lbs! Expect to lose up to 1/4 of the wool to skirting (removing underbelly, poo parts, etc) if the sheep was uncovered. If the fleece is super dirty and greasy, expect to lose up to 30%-40% of the weight after scouring. A lower grease wool will lose about 10-20% of weight after scouring. About 15%-25% of wool will be waste if the fiber is combed, and 5%-10% will be waste if the wool is carded. If I’m planning a project and want enough to play with for dyeing experiments, spinning experiments, and swatching experiments, nevermind knitting an woman-size sweater, I would get at the minimum 4 lbs of raw wool. If I’m buying prepared fiber (ready to spin), I’ll get 2 lbs if it’s for me, 3 lbs if it’s for XLT-size husband.

  2. Juno says:

    When I first started spinning I went looking for some equivalent to a yardage chart – how many ounces of fiber would I need to make a sweater.

    Simple question right? But I looked and looked and found nothing. Because as your previous commenter mentioned, it kind of varies. Weight depends of type of wool as much as it depends on style of prep and spinning – light and woolen, smooth and worsted, something in between – also the number of plies….and loss during processing depends on the quality of the fleece, the amount of lanolin, the amount of dirt, the skill of the processor, the style of the processor, methods of processing, combed vs. carded, luck….that’s all I can think of right now, but I’m sure there’s more.

    I’ve learned not to develop preconceived notions about a fleece until I get into it and presently I’m using more wool in everything as I am getting the hang of a new and much faster wheel and everything I’m making is over twisted.

    Call it an adventure.

    Thanks for the review – I enjoyed the tabula rasa approach. Made me think about my own assumptions.

  3. j. says:

    Thanks to both of you — yes, that’s true, putting statements in about the final yield of a fleece may be something you’d regret later, but still… if I were buying fleece with the ultimate goal of turning it into a sweater, I guess I’d like to know what percentage, weight-wise, I might wind up with in the end. 50-70%? less than 50%?

    I tried a couple of wheels today, and not surprisingly the hardest part (once I got the wheel spinning consistently in one direction, which was easier with the double-treadle wheel) was drafting the fleece while spinning. As for the rest, I was totally comfortable with the operation of the wheel, so I think Shannon’s book did everything I could hope it would do — the only thing it couldn’t do, of course, was sit next to me and remind me to do the things I had read.

  4. jauncourt says:

    As Janice said, A lot of spinning books don’t answer those questions (except for the Alden Amos Big Book of Spinning, IIRC).

    However, I think it has more to do with the fact that many answers depend on other factors (and are sometimes really subjective) – the amount of yarn you get from a fleece depends on how much you have to discard during the cleaning process, how much you can actually turn into yarn from a given prepared amount of fiber (many spinners will have a bag of odd bits that end up not being really spinnable unless re-processed, or that are just set aside for felting), etc. It is the little bit that’s not quite oriented right, or that gets stuck together, or tangles, or is unwilling to be grafted to the next bit of fiber. There is always a little bit though how well you utilize your prepared fiber varies so much from person to person (some have almost no waste fiber, some have lots, some people would have lots but reprocess as they go, etc.) that it’s a self-defeating thing to tell someone how much yarn weight they might get from a given weight of fleece. It’s also not something people often even notice. Some people just throw these little bits of fiber away, some save them. I didn’t even realize how much waste I produced as a by-product of my spinning – I’ve been spinning for decades- until I went looking in my scrap bag for bits of waste to felt and discovered I had enough to reprocess into a varigated roving sufficient to make an entire skein of yarn.

    The yardage produced from given amount of fiber also depends on how you intend to spin it, obviously. And then using generalizations about spinning wheels can come back and bite you. There are several different kinds, and while the basic mechanics – a drive wheel always rotates the spindle – are the same, the details often are not. Thus, detailed descriptions of spinning wheel mechanics are usually left to books about the wheels themselves (_Spinning Wheels, Spinners and Spinning_, and _The Care and Feeding of Spinning Wheels_, both about the craft and its tools, rather than how to perform the craft, are good examples of this).

    There’s also a tendency in writing about crafts to avoid being TOO authoritative in an attempt to keep the book more accessible (and there’s backlash when you are – Alden Amos has actually been criticized for being too authoritative). It’s not just in spinning books – I’ve seen it everywhere. It’s not dumbing down, exactly, but an attempt to not drown the newbie in details that might be confusing. A good way to satisfy both needs is to provide an annotated bibliography, or a reading guide sorted by subject with comments.

  5. Janice in GA says:

    You know, a lot of the questions you ask are valid, and are almost never answered in spinning books. And honestly, you don’t have to know a lot of it to actually *spin.* At our spinning guild’s retreat last weekend, we had a guy step in and say he’d always wondered how spinning wheels work. Well, I do spinning demos, so I ‘splained it to him. After he left, the ladies near me both told me how they wouldn’t have been able to explain nearly as much as I did. But I like knowing how things work, and I like answering the questions about how things work.

    And the purpose of the flyer is to wrap the yarn around the bobbin so you don’t have to stop the spinning while you wind on. With a scotch tension wheel (brake on the bobbin), I like to spin up a long length of yarn and then crank the brake tension down. When I wind on, you can see the bobbin stop while the flyer keeps going round and round as it winds the yarn on. :)