Spinning for weaving need not be frightening or complicated. By and large, weavers want many of the same things from their yarns as do knitters, just on a slightly smaller scale. A nice, lofty worsted weight knitting yarn may produce a lovely sweater but will make a very thick, stiff and dense fabric when woven. Conversely, high twist singles produce knitting with a sharp bias and unpleasant hand, but work beautifully on a loom.
First a few terms.
Grist - usually stated as yards per pound, refers to the relationship between weight and length. The higher the grist, the finer the yarn. This NOT exactly the same thing as yarn numbers (8/2, 20/1, etc)
Twist per inch or twist rate - how many turns are put into the yarn over a given length or period of time? Twist rate will influence grist as well as the relative hardness of the yarn. The main thing that makes a yarn strong is the amount of twist. High-twist yarns will be firmer and stronger than low-twist.
Wraps Per Inch (WPI) - measures yarn diameter. Usually used by knitters to determine the the gauge of the yarn, can also be used to determine grist.
Warp - The lengthwise lengths of thread or yarn attached to the loom. Warp threads are manipulated using heddles (usually metal) to create woven patterns. Warp threads tend to be under significant tension and can be abraded by the workings of the loom.
Weft - Width-wise threads used to produce cloth. Weft threads are wound around a bobbin or a shuttle stick and pass back and forth between the warp threads. Very little tension is placed on these threads.
Yarn Numbers - You will often see weaving yarns labeled with odd little fractions or ratios, like 8/2 or 20/1. These numbers contain two different pieces of information. The larger number refers to the number of hanks of a pre-set length that make up a pound. This standard hank size varies a bit based on the fiber but the number always refers to singles. The smaller number refers to the number of plies. So a 20/2 yarn and an 10/1 yarn would be about the same length. These numbers can be useful but are generally not helpful to the beginning weaver. What matters is yard per pound (the actual grist of the completed yarn) and the number of plies. In general, the higher the number, the finer the yarn.
Singles are wonderful for period weaving! In our period, nearly all woven fabrics were made with singles for both warp and weft (there are a few exceptions, but the general practice seems to have been to weave with singles in nearly all cases). Here are just a few reasons (other than historical accuracy) why working with singles on a loom can work better than plied yarns:
- Time - you spend less than half as much time spinning. With no need to create a second ply then ply your singles together, you will get much more bang for your spinning buck
- Grist - You do not have to spin frog-hair singles to stack together into the right weight of yarn, just spin to the target grist and you are done
- Balance - when weaving, we do not need to worry about perfectly balanced yarns (i.e. those that will not bias when knitting). Extra twist will even out in the weaving process and be locked into place by the interaction of warp and weft. Extra twist can even make the finished cloth smoother as there tend to be fewer loose ends of fibers in higher twist yarns. High-energy yarns can also be used to create interesting textural patterns.
- A little more room for variation - because you are not stacking multiple strands of yarn together, there is a little more room for variation in your singles yarn in a weaving project. Any thick or thin sections in the single are wrapped around equally variable singles in the plying process, sometimes balancing them out but also often compounding the variation. When weaving, these large swings in grist can become very problematic and are nearly impossible to correct for. With the smaller, smoother singles it is easier to spread out the variation and still produce a consistent, unified looking cloth.
When trying to match a yarn, be it someone else's handspun or a commercial yarn, do not let yourself fly on autopilot. Slow down, take time to breath, and let yourself pay attention to the small nuances of what you are doing. Yes, this will be a challenge at first, but you will find a rhythm and the process will smooth out and speed up as you continue to work. This is especially critical with group projects, as great swings in variation can be detrimental to the finished project.
Keep Samples Close:
If you are trying to spin a nice consistent yarn, keep samples of the target yarn close to hand when spinning. I like to keep an index card with small lengths of both the component singles AND the plied yarn next to my wheel when working on large projects so that I remain consistent. It takes very little effort or thought to compare what is going into the wheel orifice and what is on my sample card if the two things are close together.
This is really important! Pay attention to twist direction (usually you will see this described or Z or S spun). If you have a sample you are trying to match, make sure you are spinning in the same direction. Variations in direction can make some interesting patterns when used with deliberation but can look a hot mess if not intended.
In many period wool textiles, you will see different twist direction used for warp and weft, which produces a firmer and stronger fabric than one in which all threads have the same twist direction. Where all threads have the same direction of twist, the cloth will be more lustrous and softer. It seems like a small thing but it can impact how well the finished cloth holds together and the overall appearance of the project. Modern spinner/weavers often play with twist direction when designing textiles but this is done with a high degree of intentionality to produce a pleasing cloth.
“Aging” your singles
Like wine, singles benefit from a bit of aging. This means leaving the finished singles on the bobbin for a day or more before winding it off into skeins or onto weaving bobbins. You will notice that fresh singles tend to have a more uneven distribution of twist than those that are allowed to age a bit
Twists Per Inch:
I usually don’t think about this much at all except when choosing the right ratio setting on my spinning wheel. My fingers monitor this almost automatically. However, if you are consistently producing yarns that are too hard or too soft, or singles that fall apart, you may want to give TPI some thought. Switching your wheel to a lower drive ratio will usually solve the problem of over-hard yarns, likewise a higher ratio will help with soft, weak yarns. Sometimes you may need to adjust your rate of treadling.
Remember that a smooth, strong worsted yarn will have more TPI than a soft, loftly woolen yarn. Note that if you are spinning yarns for warp (the lengthwise yarns on a loom, which are under a great deal of tension) you will need to spin higher twist yarns. Twist is what determines yarn strength, and warp needs to be fairly strong. It also needs to be fairly smooth, which you can control with twist.
Angle of Twist
In looking at extant textile fragments, you will often see the yarns described as having a given angle of twist. By and large, this works out to telling you something about the twists per inch. A yarn with a 45 degree angle of twist is more tightly spun than one with a 30 degree angle of twist. This can be hard to measure, but it’s not impossible. There are twist gauges out there and Knitty has put together a good guide here that will suffice for most projects. (if you like math, this is a great post explaining all about twist in yarn)
Much like twists per inch, angle of twist comes down to wheel ratios and speed. If your twist angle is too shallow, speed up your treadling or switch to a higher drive ratio. If it’s too steep, go lower. You will eventually train your fingers to feel when you have achieved the right angle of twist in your spinning.
Use a Yarn Balance
A yarn balance, usually called a McMorran Balance, is used to measure grist (yards per pound). The balance is a small plastic scale that will help you determine how much yardage you have in a skein of yarn and also if you have achieved the target balance of twist and diameter. The tool is not expensive (less than $30) and will help you become a more proficient technical spinner. You really should have one of these in your kit even if you never spin for a weaving project.
Expand your Drafting Repertoire
Most of us have a drafting technique that we are more comfortable with and can do almost without thinking. Take the time to practice both long and short draw drafting. A short draw, typically used for worsted yarns, will generally work better for weaving yarns as the yarn is smoother and firmer than that produced by long draw. A nice smooth yarn will produce a nice smooth fabric. Lofty yarns are going to produce loftier fabrics which may be more prone to pilling and excessive fulling but are great for knitted garments.
In period, woven textiles were made out of all kinds of fibers, wool and linen being the most common in Northern Europe. Typically, for a group project you will be given prepared fiber to spin. If you need to select fiber to spin for weaving, here a few things to keep in mind:
- Long staple lengths work best for spinning warp. This is not to say they cannot be used for weft, but if you are trying to spin warp specifically you want a longer fiber. In wool fabrics, you will typically see the long fibers from dual coated sheep (tog) used for warp, while the short downy thel is used for the weft. Linen should all be from long strick, rather than small short cuts.
- Preparation matters. You should be familiar with this idea from learning about woolen vs. worsted spinning. By and large, worsted will make a nicer finish cloth. Worsted yarns are made from combed fibers and then spun short draw. Woolen yarns are made from carded batts and spun long draw. For weaving, combed fibers will usually produce a better result regardless of spinning technique.
- Predrafting is your friend. When working with commercial prepared top or sliver, I often find it easier to spin a consistent yarn if I break the length of wool into smaller section then split them lengthwise to create something like pencil roving. Drafting is easier as the fibers are loosened up a bit, and you have less bulk to manage in the drafting zone.
- Superwash should be avoided. Because superwash wool it treated so that it does not full, it can be difficult to finish the cloth once it comes off the loom. The warp and weft will not lock together properly, resulting in a cloth prone to fraying. It can work out ok for a shawl type project, but ONLY if the warp is regular wool and the handspun superwash is left soft enough to have some grab. A better option if you wish to avoid excessive fulling is to use a wool blended with silk or some other non-felting fiber.
In short, take some time to practice and gain control of your spinning tools. This will help you become a better spinner and produce exactly the yarn you want for whatever project you are working on. This is a process and you should be getting better and more controlled over time, but also keep in mind that the beauty of the shawl projects is that you can see the work of many hands. Each skein is a little bit unique and that adds to the beauty of the project. Our goal is make it easier for you to participate in these projects and produce something that will add to the beauty of the whole.
I have found these books to be invaluable in learning to spin. There are also a number of resources on YouTube if you are a more visual learner or want tips on specific techniques.
The Alden Amos Big Book of Handspinning: Being A Compendium of Information, Advice, and Opinions On the Noble Art & Craft by Alden Amos. Interweave Press, 2001
Probably the most complete book out there on handspinning. Includes all you need to know about working with any fiber as well as wheel maintenance and fiber preparation. It’s the spinning Bible.
The Spinners Companion by Bobbie Irwin. Interweave Press, 2001
Handy small reference. Lots of good tips, not as complete as Alden Amos but a good quick reference. Currently available in a Kindle edition as well, which is free is you have KindleUnlimited.
The Ashford Book of Spinning by Anne Field, SHoal Bay Press, 1986
Concise and clear instructions for all the basics of spinning and fiber preparation. Very beginner friendly.
Hand Woolcombing and Spinning: A Guide to Worsteds from the Spinning Wheel by Peter Teal. Robin and Russ Handweavers, 1993.
Every last thing you might ever want to know about spinning perfect worsted yarns. The author is very passionate about his subject and provides a lot of really great information that will improve the quality of your spinning. Probably don’t need this unless you want to comb fibers as well, but if that’s the case this is a great book. There is now a Kindle edition of this which should be very handy.