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Discover The Secrets of Yarn: Learn to Spin!

Mar 30, 2008

I shall now say the Magic Word of Knitting. Ready? (Perhaps you want to be sitting down for this one...) OK, here we go: Yarn.

Everyone OK out there? Anyone swoon, or feel their heart beat a little faster? Palms get a bit sweaty for a moment? Not surprising, because if there's one thing all of us knitters have in common it's that we LOVE yarn. Yarn is our beloved constant companion in life, and when we are not knitting with it, we love touching it, playing with it, dreaming about it, and, of course, shopping for it!

All right, so we're all yarn lovers here... But let me ask you this: How much do you really know about this lovely addictive substance? Do you really understand all that worsted/woollen/2-ply/superwash/DK/mercerized mumbo-jumbo? When a yarn has been discontinued, do you know enough about yarn to substitute with confidence? Do you understand why one yarn is good for felting and another yarn isn't?

Uh-huh. That's what I thought. We play with it, we obsess over it, we come up with clever ways to hide store it so that no one will REALLY know how much of it we have, but there's a lot most of us don't really know about yarn.

One of the best ways to learn about something, I'm told, is to learn how to make it. All right then. I wanted to learn more about yarn, so I signed up for a spinning class at my local yarn shop this winter. Little did I know what I was REALLY signing up for: a journey into the heart of knitting, and a journey into my own heart as well.

Why spin? It just takes away from my precious knitting time...

That's one reason I resisted taking a spinning class for years. I mean, I only have so much free time, and I love knitting, and there are lots of lovely yarns out there that someone else has already made for me, so what's the point? I'll be honest with you. There were two main reasons I finally went off to Maggie Casey's Beginning Spinning class this past January. First, I was afraid I wouldn't be able to spin, that I would be bad at it—and yet here I was spouting the whole Fearless Knitter thing, so seemed like I should be setting a good example for y'all and face my own "I can't" fears. The second reason? I've been getting a ton of emails from you asking for help substituting yarns. I wanted to learn more about how to substitute successfully, so that I could help YOU learn how to do it successfully.

So I guess you might say that you folks gave me both the courage and a reason to do something I was afraid to do. (Thanks, guys.)

And Maggie? Well, Maggie gave me a bit of fluff from a sheep named Helen, lent me a spinning wheel, and told me that if the spinning wasn't going well, it was always the wheel's fault. (Thanks, Maggie. I've been repeating that phrase a lot lately!)

It's now almost April, and all the yarn you see in the photos on this page is MY yarn. I made it—with a lot of help from Maggie. In teaching me how to make yarn, Maggie also taught me how to LOOK at yarn, how to think about it logically, and how to evaluate the yarn in my hand in order to make decisions about what kind of yarn is best for which knitting project.

I kind of think spinning classes should be called Becoming a Better Knitter Through Learning About Yarn, because I think that that's one thing spinning has done for me, made me a better knitter.

Do I spin now that class is over? Heck yes. (It's relaxing, and fun!) Do I still buy yarns at the yarn shop? You betcha. The difference is that now I understand what I am buying, and can make my yarn pennies really count. (Plus, I can't spin fast enough to feed my knitting addiction.) Does the spinning cut into my knitting time? Um, probably cuts into my housework time. (Sorry, Nicholas dear.)

OK, those are all the logical, grownup reasons why I recommend that knitters take at least one beginning spinning class. The real reason, the heart-of-the-matter reason? Because spinning is a joy, and the first time you knit with your own handspun yarn, well. That's like watching the first crocus of spring open up. It just leaves you speechless with happiness.

Sandi Wiseheart is the editor of Knitting Daily.

What's on Sandi's needles? What happened to the Gathered Pullover, you ask? I lost 28 pounds, that's what. Now I am contemplating ripping versus a loose-fitting sweater.

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edissk8 wrote
on Feb 7, 2010 7:36 PM

What is a drop spindle?  Where can I get one?

edissk8 wrote
on Feb 7, 2010 7:25 PM

I had a friend who spun her angora rabbits' fur.  She spun some of my French Lop"s fur.  What wonderful soft yarn it made and I was able to keep a connection to my wonderful rabbit after he died.  I am in the process of making a large blanked out of the yarn now.  It felts beautifully.  I do wish I could have learned to spin myself.  Some day.  I will also have to get another rabbit to donate wool.

edissk8 wrote
on Feb 7, 2010 7:24 PM

I had a friend who spun her angora rabbits' fur.  She spun some of my French Lop"s fur.  What wonderful soft yarn it made and I was able to keep a connection to my wonderful rabbit after he died.  I am in the process of making a large blanked out of the yarn now.  It felts beautifully.  I do wish I could have learned to spin myself.  Some day.  I will also have to get another rabbit to donate wool.

on Jul 10, 2008 7:10 PM

Pingback from  Must Have More Yarn! » Spinning/Fiber Junkie

AprilC wrote
on Apr 8, 2008 1:40 AM
I can relate to your wanting to more about yarn. I knit my first pattern vest with gift yarn from New Zealand and it stretched down to my knees (no, I didn't want a tunic vest). I washed it to pull it together and gave it to my larger than me sister. That was when I realized maybe there's something more I need to know about my yarn than color and feel.
on Apr 7, 2008 11:28 AM
I was disappointed not to find the Frock Camisole pattern in the March 31 issue as promised. When will it come out?
Mimu wrote
on Apr 2, 2008 9:05 AM
Sandi, don't make your Gathered pullover loose-fitting. I have experience of loose-fitting Gathered and it does not look good.
Mary JoM wrote
on Apr 1, 2008 7:38 PM
Hi Sandi, nice to hear you have lost weight. I know how much better I feel since I lost some weight. Still have at least 20 more to lose. Im not as active as I would like to be. [Arthritis] Love your sweater patterns, you have put on line. I did get the cozies printed and plan to work on that soon. Mary jo Morse- Iam signed up with you.
ChristineT wrote
on Apr 1, 2008 4:35 PM
I just took a spinning class in Lawrence, Kansas (at the Yarn Barn) for any of you from this part of the country. So far the response from everyone but my sweet husband has been, "huh". That includes several knitters! I think the difference is that I love the tactile variability of handspun yarns and most of my knitting friends prefer more consistent yarns. I'm not sure that another hobby that involves so much sitting is going to be the best thing for me. How do people manage to experiment with spinning before committing to a high priced spinning wheel? A used wheel? Use of one at a LYS? A friend who lets them try it out? I have to admit, I struggled to put together my little skein of yarn at the class. I'm quite intrigued by the idea but don't want to invest quite so much without knowing that it is likely to take.
JenniferH wrote
on Apr 1, 2008 3:17 PM
Oh, spinning! That's what got me back into knitting! Oh, the joy of knitting w/ alive yarn. YUM
VickiT wrote
on Apr 1, 2008 11:29 AM
I was pleased to see this week's topic. I just had a program on spinning and dyeing at our library knitting club this past Thursday. We had a nice turnout with both young& old; men & women attended. They had a chance to have "hands-on" experience with spinning, carding and drop spindles. We all discovered it isn't easy. It makes you became more appreciative of the whole process. Thanks for your information this week. I plan on ordering several books on spinning to add to our library collection.
Vicki Teets
Beaver Area Memorial Library
Beaver, Pennsylvania
LisaR wrote
on Apr 1, 2008 11:18 AM
(Off-topic) I just had an epiphany: You know what would be really useful? If magazines (and other pattern resources) would list, along with yarn, needles, and gauge, *how* the sample item was blocked. Full wet-block? Steam block? Spray block? Too-small-to-worry-about-it block?
Alcove wrote
on Apr 1, 2008 11:16 AM
Great timing on the spinning article! Don't forget to mention sheep shearing season is just around the corner. Interweave has a lovely calendar for all the upcoming fiber festivals for great deals. Everyone enjoy your new addiction and I recommend hiding yarn in hat boxes with a lovely lavender sachet to keep it smelling nice and keep those moths away.
on Apr 1, 2008 8:33 AM
Hi Sandi! your spinning is beautiful! and you are very encouraging! I used to go to all those historical villages and be fascinated by the carding/spinning ladies. about 15 years ago I bought a wheel and dyed rovings and got a video on it. I managed to make some fair yarn and LOVED the process, however I had three school aged children involved in many school activites and was obliged to put it all on the back burner.I am now coming down the home stretch, and will need something to occupy my empty nest syndrome this sounds perfect. For those in cities that cannot find yarn stores with classes, go to your state's fair ground ( or the nearest state that has a fair) during fair time and visit the sheep area there is usually a table for the spinning guilds there and they will be most eager to help you get started. And Sandi, congratulations on the new you! While there's no replacement for coffee,Herbal and Green teas can come to be very comforting, and are much better for us. I have been coffee free for 14 years and would not go back now because I feel so much better. :) MaryL
Ellen W wrote
on Apr 1, 2008 7:12 AM
Sandi - congratulations on the weight loss! Looking forward to seeing a new sweater for the new you! I've never considered spinning before, but you've piqued my interest....
DorrisW wrote
on Apr 1, 2008 6:35 AM
It's funny, but I felt like todays column was written by me! You spoke from my heart and my uncertainties (with the notable exception of the reason you started spinning). I haven't started yet, but I recently (last week, actually) sent for a beginners kit that I found on the internet. I subscribed to Spinners shortly after I began getting Knitting Daily (probably around the time that the Spinners editor guest hosted). The more that I read about yarns and spinning, the more that I wanted to try it for myself. But I was not fearless, I was fearful! Of failure, of the lack of free time and more. Anyway, I ordered Maggie's book and when my drop spindle and fluff comes I will fearlessly (I hope) begin. Thanks for your comments -- they have encouraged me greatly to step off a new cliff. I now have the confidence to grow wings. Deedee Winters
ArleneT wrote
on Mar 31, 2008 10:58 PM
First, congrats on the weight loss. And second, I have been thinking about doing spinning. I did it a little as a small girl and remember it as being fun. I love all the colors and softness. Being tactile is calming so thats a good side effect. Thankyou for writing about spinning, it reminded me to act upon doing something about my own desire to spin. Arlene in CA
Elizabeth wrote
on Mar 31, 2008 9:49 PM
Congrats on the weight loss Sandi! Can't wait to see the next sweater show! Make yourself a new sweater to show off your new shape!
SandiL wrote
on Mar 31, 2008 8:50 PM
Knitting with your own spun yarn is like the difference between holding someone else's child and craddling your own...That's what I say! I've been spinning almost a year..
on Mar 31, 2008 8:12 PM
Spin, knit, weave, etc. All wonderful. I took the spin/knit another step: untwisted 4 ply, retwisted to 2 ply; made enough length to reknit (on smaller needles) a special project for a dear friend relearning spin/knit after a stroke. Beautiful yarn, merino-silk space dyed. Helped that I wanted to see if I could (used quill wheel, ball winders, lots of patience).
GBailey wrote
on Mar 31, 2008 7:10 PM
Sandi: I really enjoyed your article, and you created some beautiful yarns! Talk about fearless!

I've been a spinner longer than I've been a knitter (I have no idea how did THAT happened!), so I can appreciate how "in touch" with the yarn you can get by spinning it yourself---I like that you brought that out in your article!

Are there any plans, by chance, for a "Fearless Spinner" badge? Maybe?
elizaduckie wrote
on Mar 31, 2008 7:08 PM
Oh, PS. Having been there, ditch the, now inadvertently large, in-progress-project! You will not want to wear it! You will yearn to display your svelt shape. Make a svelter sweater! Is that a word? For sure don't try saying that three times.

Make a smaller version or knit something else! Or wait 'till you stabilize if you think you might be the amazing shrinking woman. You deserve to look as good as you actually are! Give that project a good frogging!
elizaduckie wrote
on Mar 31, 2008 6:58 PM
Sandi: I've been deseprate to take that class! If it wasn't enough to just to learn from an absolute Mistress of the Craft, I think it also ends with a whole day of dyeing. Wow! Maggie is also a very, very nice person, the best! Somehow I always manage not to get to CO soon enough to take the Spring Class, and I leave prior to the early/late winter class. It tends to change dates. I have been so, so, frustrated!

I think I did you one better Sandi, I actually bought a used wheel and had a little beginner's luck then just froze. Took it hopefully to CO and trundled over to Maggie's shop where she guided me through a fiber purchase. Then I just froze, got paralyzed, what if it wasn't good enough? What if I couldn't spin after the first bit? I had a complete meltdown over it. So stupid! Then to make sure I couldn't spin I left the wheel in CO when I came back to FL at the end of the Summer. To make matters worse a lot of my knitting friends both in FL and CO, are falling like flies...and spinning their little [fearless] hearts out, brilliantly

Okay..I NOW I'm determined, this Summer in CO, I_wlll_spin!
RachelK wrote
on Mar 31, 2008 6:54 PM
I'm so glad you brought this up. Don't quite know how I started getting obsessed with the idea of spinning. After a bunch of obsessive knitting, I still wasn't making the connection until it clicked in all of a sudden. Started spinning last December and am already contemplating my second wheel purchase. I feel like the day doesn't go right unless I do some every day. If I don't have some particular fiber I want to spin, I dig around in the castoffs from one of the local sheep farmers. Much experimenting with different fibers and "food safe" dyes, if you consider Kool-aid such a thing. AND have been hanging out with farmers and fiber processors, at least a little, to really understand what "sheep to sweater" really means. It's a great adventure. Only now am I starting to contemplate an actual handspun project. Up to this point, the process is everything.
Becknit wrote
on Mar 31, 2008 5:47 PM
Way to go on the loss of your sweater size!!! Congratulations. I know that was harder than learning to spin. Once again you encourage and inspire us.
Ellie wrote
on Mar 31, 2008 5:35 PM
For those of you in the greater Boulder, CO area, Maggie Casey just published a new book on learning to spin and she's having a signing for it next week, April 7th at Shuttles, Spindles and Skeins. After taking her basic spinning class a few years ago, I also became a convert - while I don't have room or $ for a wheel, I've got drop spindles and have been making my own sock yarn.
CayenneD wrote
on Mar 31, 2008 5:29 PM
Amen! I adore spinning and I love how it helps me be a better knitter. Thanks for the great newsletter today.
Kris wrote
on Mar 31, 2008 4:06 PM
You go girl! You are well on your way to becoming a 100 proof yarn snob. When friends ask why I make my own yarn when I can buy it, I can never explain. You have to "be there."
ElinorW wrote
on Mar 31, 2008 4:05 PM
Sandi, congrats on weight loss.I have lost some kilo's also and like you have a garment I started last/or maybe the year before.The yarn is merino and possum so don't wish to waste it so will rip it down at some stage but have definitely lost all interest in it at the moment.Hope to lose more so no personal knitting for some time .Enjoy your articles down here in the southern hemisphere .
Best wishes Elinor NZ
ChristineB wrote
on Mar 31, 2008 4:00 PM
Spinning is an amazing way to appreciate knitting. I have been knitting for 25 years but only spinning for a little over a year. I can"t tell you how relaxing it is and how when I settle down with my needles to knit, how much more I appreciate the fiber. If you are a ARE a spinner!!
ChristineB wrote
on Mar 31, 2008 4:00 PM
Spinning is an amazing way to appreciate knitting. I have been knitting for 25 years but only spinning for a little over a year. I can"t tell you how relaxing it is and how when I settle down with my needles to knit, how much more I appreciate the fiber. If you are a ARE a spinner!!
ChristineB wrote
on Mar 31, 2008 4:00 PM
Spinning is an amazing way to appreciate knitting. I have been knitting for 25 years but only spinning for a little over a year. I can"t tell you how relaxing it is and how when I settle down with my needles to knit, how much more I appreciate the fiber. If you are a ARE a spinner!!
sulitk wrote
on Mar 31, 2008 3:50 PM
Don't forget, spindles are an inexpensive way to learn to spin if you cannot afford a wheel. Spindles are also very portable. Wine gift boxes store a spindle and fiber quite nicely. :)
AdrienneB wrote
on Mar 31, 2008 3:45 PM
You sound almost like a drug dealer Sandi! OK, teasing...but I have steeled myself against learning to spin, at this time. I need at least one of my three kids self supporting prior to learning to spin.

I do agree with you, knowing about yarn makes you more confident about substitutions, what to look for when substituting. I went a cheaper route than learning to spin, Clara Parkes book, it is great.
YavannaR wrote
on Mar 31, 2008 3:22 PM
I haven't yet taken on spinning--mainly because I fear I'd then need to have my own sheep (I'd name them all fluffy) and move to the country because I'd love it so much.

I did dye my own yarn for the first time just a couple of weeks ago using some elses spun virgin wool/mohair. I think I got a very similar feeling as the one Sandi describes of looking at a project you made with that yarn and feeling a certain special feeling of accomplishment knowing its your yarn. Well for me I guess it's more like "my colors" but it does feel like my yarn in a way. Maybe someday I'll take up spinning too, if I can get some high quality roving...
MistyY wrote
on Mar 31, 2008 3:20 PM
Once I learned to spin it made a real difference in how I looked at yarn! I don't see it as eating into my knitting time because I knit while commuting; like Sandy, I forgo housework to spin. Spinning also changed a lot what yarns I spend my precious money on; I don't try to spin plain yarns like a basic knitting worsted. That's what I buy. I spin yarns that I want to be a very specific type of yarn, from fibre that I have fallen in love with. It is a slow process; in 6 years of spinning I've only made 2 sweaters out of entirely handspun yarn. But they're the best things I have ever made.
Raynebair wrote
on Mar 31, 2008 3:08 PM
How awesome to see an article about spinning. I just recently learned to spin (by way of the Internet and your awesome "Why I want to learn to Spin" contest! Now I can't get enough. It's so cool to see that fluff turn into yarn and know that I did that. I'm still learning, but eagerly anticipating the time when I can actually knit something from my yarn.
DiSH wrote
on Mar 31, 2008 2:56 PM
YAAAAAY!!! Thank you so much, Sandi, for a great commentary on spinning. I am one who learned to spin FIRST (from Maggie!) and then learned to knit so I could use the yarn I spun. Spinning is my first passion. It's so serene to sit at my wheel with good music and my favorite beverage and feel the fiber become yarn between my fingers. It touches my creative core in a way nothing ever has before. And there is so much to learn about all the different fibers and how they want to be spun -- yes, the fiber will tell you how it wants to be spun! The possibilities are endless as to what kinds of yarn can be spun -- customized, personalized yarns that cannot be found in any store. This is just the beginning for you, Sandi. Happy spinning!
LindaC wrote
on Mar 31, 2008 2:44 PM
What fun! Your yarn is yummy and I envy you your new skill...:-) I also congratulate you on your weight loss. That was probably harder than learning to spin. I'm proud of you, girl!

Linda -- South of San Diego
SusanG@5 wrote
on Mar 31, 2008 2:40 PM
Yes! I own sheep and love the spinning, weaving ,knitting, etc. thing. Good for you, spinning is fun, so enjoy. Oh yea, if you want to purchase some lovely wool email me, my fellow spinners love it. Spin on-Sue or
SharonV wrote
on Mar 31, 2008 2:11 PM
It's such a coincidence that this subject should come up now. I've been obsessively wanting to learn to spin, but am having difficulty finding someone in the NY metropolitan area willing to teach and lend me a rent to own a spinning wheel.

I thought I could quell the craving for spinning by buying a drop spindle, but it's hard work with only a DVD as a teacher (the people on the video have a tendency NOT to answer my burning questions about fiber prep and wpi). Besides, I think I need to see it all in action.

I've been picking up the magazine Spin Off and while it's helpful, I found myself slobbering over an article about the Kromski family and their spinning wheel models.

My burning question is should I buy the wheel now while I know nothing and just muddle through, or wait. Oh what to do, what to do?

I'd better go lay down somewhere ...
Nelle wrote
on Mar 31, 2008 2:05 PM
Very courageous and cool of you, Sandi.
I spin and am so glad you faced your fear and told us your experience!
Everyone who knits should know the freedom that spinning gives you to have the exact yarn you need for a special project.
You don't have to spin all your yarn for knitting, but you are in control when you can make the yarn you cannot find at your local shop.
Kchealy wrote
on Mar 31, 2008 1:56 PM
Maggie is a fabulous teacher and her new book is almost as wonderful.
LisaB@2 wrote
on Mar 31, 2008 1:53 PM
I agree 100% Spinning teaches so much about fiber and yarn. I have been knitting for 16 years and spinning for about 5. My creativity, choice of yarns and overall understanding of yarn has vastly improved. I recently even got brave enough to demonstrate in public to adults where I work... for Women's Creativity day... WOW the comments I got were so interesting...
Vis_Major wrote
on Mar 31, 2008 1:48 PM
Dangit, Sandy. I've been resisting the pull of spinning but I don't think I can keep resisting now. You really got me with "I kind of think spinning classes should be called Becoming a Better Knitter Through Learning About Yarn, because I think that that's one thing spinning has done for me, made me a better knitter." :)
JulesG wrote
on Mar 31, 2008 1:42 PM
Hey, I don't know much about spinning but you did an awsome job. And I just wondered whether I can take a spinning class somewhere around here. I'll have to ask at my LYS.
Congratulations on your weight loss. Can't wait to see you again in the next sweater gallery.
DeborahS wrote
on Mar 31, 2008 1:40 PM
Sandi and I must be on the same wave-length! I also signed up for spinning this winter. I've had a wheel for years and kept thinking - someday! And I love it! I have often threatened just to pile all my yarns together and roll in them - and this is the next best thing! To feel the fiber moving through your finger tips is delicious! I don't have the control yet to make fibers to match my imagination, but I will get there. Also, like many craftspeople with various crafts, my hands feel tired after knitting for too long, so spinning switches the muscles around and still lets me play in fiber!
EllieS wrote
on Mar 31, 2008 1:18 PM
Spinning and hand-carding are the best ways to understand color, fiber, thread, yarn, and fabric. Years ago a man told me he didn't know anyone who spun. I replied that I hardly know anyone who doesn't. Now, excuse me please, I'm off to a neighborhood spinning meeting.
Air.blueskys wrote
on Mar 31, 2008 12:57 PM
WOW!!! Sandi, how thrilling to hear about your success at spinning and "body" management. WAY 2 GO.
WendyH wrote
on Mar 31, 2008 12:11 PM
Sandi - you did a beautiful job spinning!!! Wow - I wish my first spinning attempts looked like that. I've been a knitter for 25 years and a spinner for 20 years. I still buy some already spun wool but mostly use my own wool from my very careful....the next step is acquiring fiber animals. When this urge hits you - don't fight it even if you have to move to a place where animals are permissible and you have to build barns fences, etc. Oh, this fiber stuff is soooo addicting!!
CarolynS wrote
on Mar 31, 2008 12:08 PM
Yea for spinning! It's completely addictive, and you're right, it's really helpful for learning more about yarn. I will sheepishly admit I haven't knit any of my handspun yet - I'm still day dreaming about what to make it into. But someday soon it will transform into a wonderful hat/scarf/mittens/something that will be made completely by me.
I think that'll feel pretty good. :)