by Jennifer Leigh
I have been knitting my whole life, but I am a novice spinner. I tell you this so you don’t expect an article from a spinning luminary; I’m new at this. I’m of the opinion that novices can make excellent teachers, because our own learning is fresh, so we have more patience and understanding than many experienced people. I also believe that teaching what I have learned will help me learn it better. I was taught that the best way to learn was to watch one, do one, then teach one. So this article is for me to solidify a new skill as much as it’s for you to learn what I know.
When I started spinning, thick and thin was what I was trying to avoid. I am largely successful these days; the lumps and bumps in my spinning settled out and smoothed away as yards and yards of singles piled up on bobbins, and I was quite content with that. I never really understood the mechanics of WHY I was spinning thick and thin, or how I stopped, I was just happy that with practice and the development of a rhythm it went away. I was content.
Then this weekend I was in my favorite fiber store, and got glued to some art yarn that the shop owner had spun. It was, simply, gorgeous. Intentionally thick and thin, plied back on itself, it drew my eye and then my hands, and soon I was walking around the shop squishing it. If it weren’t meant for a personal project for the shop owner, it would be home with me now. So of course my goal became to spin one just like it-and that’s when I realized I had no idea how.
In a happy accident I had also just purchased Judith MacKenzie’s “Spinner’s Toolbox” video, where she covers this quite thoroughly. I have used that video, her book “The Intentional Spinner,” and Amy King’s “Spin Control” to learn what I’m now going to try to teach you. I highly recommend all of these references.
The basis of spinning thick and thin is drafting out a lot of wool, and then only a teeny amount, and then a lot again. I remember the rhythm of this as a beginner. It went something like: “Ooops, that was a big clump, I need to hang on better-oh wait oh no it’s about to break-phew! It didn’t break. But oops that was another clump.” That’s exactly what it takes to do it on purpose, but now I have a little more control over the process.
The first thing to understand about spinning thick and thin is that the clumps are defined by the staple length of the fiber you are spinning. Individual clumps can be thicker or thinner, and the space between them can be as long or short as you’d like, but for a given staple length the clumps will always be the same length.
That’s because the basis of making a clump is to do what I did as a beginner: catch a clump of fiber where the twist hits the drafting zone, and then clamp down and attenuate the draft until the strand almost breaks.
For this tutorial, I am using roving made from a very crimpy wool of unknown provenance, with a 6″ staple. It appears to have been carded, and is a bit greasy.
The stickiness helped it grab very well, making good clumps and helping the few connecting fibers stick to each other in the thin parts before the twist entered the web.
To learn to do this, I broke it down into steps:
First, I established a working yarn on the wheel, with a low ratio and a fast take-up.
On my Kromski Minstrel I used the 8.5:1 groove on the whorl, and enough take-up that the leader whizzed away from me if I released my grip.
Then I let the twist run into my fiber, clamped my forward hand down on the front of the drafting zone as I would for a worsted draw, and built up more twist behind my fingers.
Once the strand between my hand and the orifice began to kink I halted the wheel. I then slowly pulled my other hand back until I could see the clump that was caught in my forward hand almost pulling away from the bulk of the fiber.
When the clump was pulled out so that only just enough strands from the clump were crossing the bulk of the fiber in my back hand to sustain a fine thread, I released the twist and let it run down through the clump and up towards my other hand. The twist settled mostly into the thin spot between the clump and the rest of the fiber.
I then started treadling again while drafting back in a long draw, pulling gently against the yarn until it felt stable, bouncy, and I could see that there was some twist in the clump.
When the twist was starting to work its way into the bulk of the fiber I clamped my forward hand down on the twist, fed the yarn I’d just finished into the orifice and onto the bobbin, and did it again.
The clumps started appearing like soap bubbles or pillows or beads on a string. It was mesmerizing.
After spinning out the single, I wanted to ply it back on itself, so I wound it off onto two storage bobbins, put those on my lazy kate, and plied it with just enough twist to open up the puffy clumps and balance the yarn.
The finished product is fluffy and surprisingly strong. Because the fibers in the clumps are caught at both ends, there is no sacrifice in strength from spinning this way. The yarn has both the bounce of a woolen spun yarn as a gift from the clumps, and the strength of a worsted spun yarn since the fibers are all aligned when they are drafted.
This technique got me to explore the role of fiber alignment and staple length in finished yarn. I was fascinated that, at least for me, to produce this yarn I needed to combine both a worsted style forward draw at the beginning of a clump, and a woolen style long draw to finish it off and set up for the next one.
I still have more practice in store before I can duplicate the yarn that inspired this experiment, but I have gained a little more knowledge about what makes spinning work.
With this knowledge in my hands and inspired by a cold snap, I set about planning the yarn for the Cloche To Me pattern.
I wanted a stiff brim with an interesting stitch pattern so I chose to spin the fiber for that worsted, knowing the denser yarn would hold its shape and show the stitches. I wanted the bulk of the hat to be soft and fluffy, but still show interesting texture. I decided to use a woolen prep for this, and the thick and thin drafting technique. I divided the top in thirds lengthwise. One third was for the worsted brim, to be spun into a fine single and Navajo plied. The other two thirds would be for a two ply thick and thin.
Judith says in her book and in the video that only processed top, or some other prep where the fibers are all going in the same direction, can be used to make a thick and thin. Honestly I missed this wisdom when I started making the yarn I used in the cloche; this is a case where not having learned yet what I can’t do played to my advantage!
I wanted to spin a fluffy woolen yarn, so I rolled it all up and spun from little pseudo-rolags. To make these I pulled off a section of top two or three times as long as the staple, laid it on my knee, and rolled it from tip to tip into a fluffy tube, so that each fiber was spiraled around the center like a little spring. This means the fibers enter the drafting zone in a very disorganized fashion, which gives the yarn its lofty, woolen character.
It worked, mostly, but the thick and thin sections weren’t nearly as pronounced as when I actually followed Judith’s directions.
I believe you CAN spin thick and thin from any prep, but I also agree that you get a stronger effect if you do as she says, and work from an aligned fiber. Nevertheless, I ended up with what I wanted, which was a highly textured yarn that knit into a soft, fluffy fabric.
The woolen thick and thin is light and lofty, while the worsted is tight and shiny. I was fascinated that the 1/3 of the fiber I used for the worsted spinning produced a DK weight yarn that was 13.5 wpi, and only 40 yds to the ounce, while the 2/3 I spun woolen thick and thin ended up 10 wpi and varied from worsted weight to bulky, but made 90 yds! The difference in density is very obvious, and I know the extra air trapped in the top of the hat will translate to extra warmth when it’s on my head.
I also finished the yarns very differently. The woolen thick and thin was plunged in soapy hot water followed by ice water, and agitated aggressively. After suffering that abuse it was thwacked repeatedly until the fiber begged for mercy by fluffing out into a poofy lofty finished yarn, at which point it was rolled in a towel and stomped on for good measure, before being hung out to dry. The worsted, by contrast, got a gentle swish and a soak in a tepid bath, snapped a couple times to settle the twist, and then also hung to dry.
Spinning both finished yarns from the same fiber and knitting them into the cloche together means I am now walking around with a tutorial on the difference between worsted and woolen spinning on my head, as well as inside it!
Photos © Jennifer Leigh, David Roth.