When you think about it, yarn is one of the strangest things we make as humans here on this earth.
"Oh, look at that animal. Let's call it a sheep!"
"Oh, look at that spongy stuff growing on its back. Is it hair? No. Is it fur? Not really. Hm. Let's call it wool!"
"Oh, I wonder what happens when we shave the wool off of the animal! Ha, ha! Then let's wash it. Then let's comb it. Then let's twist it and twist it until we have all these long strands of wool! Wool that we shaved from the back of that animal eating grass over there!"
Somewhere in our history, this conversation both exposed and changed who we are. Weirdos! But also, hey, good idea.
This is a pile of pre-yarn. Pre-yarn that looks like this is called roving. Roving is animal or plant fiber that has been washed, combed, dyed (sometimes—in this case, YES, by my friend and spinning teacher), combined with other fiber (sometimes—in this case, YES, with tinsel!), and processed into a long woolly snake. When I sit down at my spinning wheel, this is what I like to have in a pile next to me. Especially when it is soft, luscious Merino wool, such as this.
Then, I do this:
Using my hands, I draft the fiber to the thickness that I want for my yarn. Meanwhile, using my feet, I pedal my wheel. My wheel adds twist (strength/energy) to the yarn and winds it onto a bobbin for safekeeping.
Learning to do this is not unlike learning to drive a car with a manual transmission. Or learning to pat your head while rubbing your tummy. Anyone can do it, but it does take some practice.
Here is what the bobbin looks like while I'm spinning:
To add extra strength and interest to my yarn, I like to ply it with another strand of yarn. This means that I use my wheel to twist the yarn I just made with another yarn. Sometimes I choose another fiber with which to ply, but often I ply my yarn on itself.
Yarn as a single strand often looks vastly different than yarn that has been plied. This is especially true when color is in play.
Here is what the single strand of yarn you see me spinning above looks like now that it has been plied on itself:
What! I know.
This is where the magic happens for me. I love not knowing which colors will end up together, or what designs and patterns they will create. I'm simply there watching the yarn become. It's thrilling.
Thrilling in a way only twisting together dyed animal hair and yarn glitter for a few hours can be.
Here is the same yarn, twisted into a skein:
This skein of yarn measures about 200 yards—a nice amount for a knitted beanie or other small knitted project. 200 yards of this yarn means that I actually spun about 400 yards of fiber. Because remember? I twisted the yarn back on itself.
This whole process, from start to finish, took about 3-4 hours.
This is why the cost of handspun yarn is a liiiiittle different than the yarn prices you see at the big-box craft stores.
Next, I will give the yarn a bath in some warm, soapy water. I will towel dry it and whip it against my kitchen floor as if my kitchen floor has done something that has terribly upset me. Then I will dry the yarn on my clothesline outside, with a can of tomatoes hung inside for weight, so that the yarn dries to drape beautifully rather than to float away like a strange, fluffy, woolly cloud.
All this rigmarole helps set the twist and calm the energy in the yarn. It also helps ensure that the yarn will behave nicely when I go to knit/weave/crochet/make psychedelic glittery Pom Poms with it.
The possibilities are endless.
I like to take my spinning wheel (which I have named Clara, after my great-great grandmother) on the road with me from time to time. On July 1 I will be spinning at Owl & Drum in Tulsa as part of their first-ever heritage-craft showcase. I'll have some of my yarn for sale, and I will be spinning and plying and probably sniffing my bags of wool, since this is something I like to do.
Want to own a skein of handspun? My yarns are available exclusively at Owl & Drum.