Burl Scarf : spin the yarn

by Jennifer Leigh

I am a relatively new spinner. I’ve had a wheel for a bit more than a year now, but I spin most every day and I knit with the yarn I make. When I purchased my wheel, my sweetie David went with me. While I was testing wheels he was wandering around the shop burying his hands in the fibers that were on display. In the end he bought four ounces of yak, and requested I spin it up to make him a scarf.

I knew nothing about yak fiber, but it was soft and a lovely earthy brown, so I was happy to agree. The pattern for the Burl Scarf [link] is the finished project from the yarn I made for him, and this article is about the process I used to make the yarn I used.

The first thing I did was research how to spin yak. I discovered that it is a down fiber, meaning the individual strands are fine and short. All of the references I checked agreed the best way to spin down is woolen style, using a long draw, preferably from hand carded rolags.

Woolen style yarns are disorderly, with fibers frequently caught in the middle rather than from an end when they enter the drafting zone. This folds them up like little springs, making air pockets that add up to fluffy, stretchy yarn that is light and warm. They are not stretched when they enter the drafting zone, so they don’t all line up parallel, but rather increase the disorder in the single by twisting around each other randomly as they pick up twist. It makes a warm, fluffy, fuzzy yarn that’s perfect for something like a scarf. This sounded perfect for what David had requested. There was just one problem: I had never spun long draw.

spinning yak topThe suggested fiber prep for yak was not something I could manage, since I had no hand cards and was working from top instead of loose down. Looking for alternatives, I found several references for rolling up top into “pseudo-rolags.” Judith MacKenzie demonstrates wrapping it around two fingers in her video A Spinner’s Toolbox. I also found references for wrapping it around a large knitting needle or other long skinny implement like a pencil or a piece of doweling.

spinning yak topI tried both of these, but what ended up working best for me was rolling it on my leg. To start, I pulled off a 6 – 8 inch section of top.

spinning yak topThen I put the section on my thigh, lined up parallel with my leg.

I started rolling it by curling the fibers closest to me up.

Then kept the curl going, rolling them into a tube.

spinning yak top

spinning yak topWhen it was rolled, I smushed and stretched it to distribute the fibers evenly.

spinning yak topI made several of these at a time, but never more than I could spin at one sitting.

To spin, I separated the strands of my leader and put one on either side of the tube, and started the wheel. I had the ratio set at 10:1, with a moderate tension, so that the wheel was pulling lightly back against me, but not so hard that the leader went whizzing through my fingers if I let go.

When the twist moved down the leader into the rolag, I started gently pulling back, holding the rolag well past the staple length so that I wasn’t trapping the fibers with my supply hand. I stopped pulling about eighteen inches from the orifice, with the beginning of the rolag elongated into a single with thick and thin spots. It’s important NOT to draw to the extent of your reach at this point, because there’s more attenuation needed to get a consistent single.

spinning yak top

spinning yak topI dropped the rolag in my lap, and started working from the end closest to the orifice, taking hold of the single with my fiber supply hand at the far end of the first thick spot, and drafting that back until it elongated into the size single I wanted.

spinning yak topI continued sliding my hand back down the single, attenuating thick spots, until I got back to the rolag. At this point my arm was at the comfortable limit of my reach. I continued adding twist to the single until it was stable, which I could determine by grasping it with my forward hand at the orifice and my supply hand in front of the drafting zone. If I pulled and it elongated, it needed more twist. If I pulled and it bounced, it was ready to wind onto the bobbin.

spinning yak topSometimes the single got overtwisted in the thin spots. Overtwist looks like a kinky spring, and won’t stretch out when you pull back.

When this happened, I let the yarn wind onto the bobbin to a place close to the overtwisted section, then parked the wheel, and drew the rolag back until the new fiber supply absorbed enough twist for the single to relax.

I then wound that section on immediately, and started a new round of drawing back.

spinning yak top

At first I was stopping the wheel a lot to make corrections. The single I produced was far from perfect, with very visible thick and thin spots. That’s ok. The yarn proved usable, and I learned something new.

spinning yak top

The next thing I tackled was finishing. Again, all the references agreed that the best method for finishing yarn was by fulling. This filled my knitter’s heart with dread. I have felted more than one item into an unusable object by following exactly the process I was supposed to use to tackle my delicate single. It all worked out well though, so read on!

The first step I took in finishing the yarn was skeining it. I put the bobbin on a tensioned lazy kate and attached the end of the single to my swift, which I placed about eight feet from the kate.

I let the single slide through my fingers as I spun the swift. Over-thick and over-twisted sections were obvious to the touch, and were generally close enough together that I could stretch out a thick section to relieve the overtwisted ones.

spinning yak topI also found places where the single was too thin or too underspun, and either broke or drifted apart. In these sections I allowed the single to break, removed the unusable section, finger spun the two ends if needed to keep the yarn stable, and then spit-spliced them back together, overlapping the ends about six inches. I’m not at all sure this is the best way to solve the problem, but I ended up with beautiful and workable yarn, and I didn’t notice any of these joins while knitting.

Once the yarn was all wound onto the swift, I tied it up in four places with #10 crochet cotton, catching the ends in the knots. I counted wraps and measured the diameter of my swift at this stage to determine how many yards I had spun. I had about 500 ### in the unfinished yarn.

spinning yak top

Now comes the scary part.

I blocked up my sink, and filled it with the hottest water my tap produces and a healthy dollop of wool wash. I also made an ice bath in a big kitchen bowl.

spinning yak top

spinning yak topStarting with the hot water, I plunged the yarn into the bath, agitating it aggressively with a kitchen spoon, because the wash was too hot for my hands. I lifted the yarn from the bath, and kneaded it aggressively like bread dough, then plunged it back in the hot. When it was too hot for me to touch, I transferred it to the ice bath, and kneaded it in there until it was icy cold. Then back in the hot bath.

spinning yak top

After two cycles of this, I changed out both baths with clean water, and repeated the process.

By this point the yarn strands were visibly sticking to each other, but could still be easily separated. The yarn had also “bloomed,” opening into fluffier, fuzzier strands. I decided I was done with that stage, and drained the baths.

spinning yak top

spinning yak topThe next step in the yarn torture was thwacking. I folded the skein in half, held it by one end, and slammed it against the sink basin as hard as I could several times, then swapped ends and did it again. I repeated this a couple times as well, to make sure it was well finished.

I believe the hardest part of the whole process, and certainly the most nerve wracking, was waiting impatiently for the yarn to dry so I could see what I had. I rolled it up in a towel and stomped it good, then hung it over a heater vent.

When it was completely dry, I put it back on the swift. It had shrunk considerably, so I had to shift the pegs. I used a ball winder to wind it up, then unwound it back off the ball winder from the outside of the ball to the swift, so as not to add twist to the finished yarn. When I counted the wraps, it had shrunk to only 400 yards! ### It was incredibly soft. The tighter bits had contracted down to little threads, but they were strong and stable. The looser bits had bloomed into a yarn that’s so fluffy you can almost see through it. Not perfect, but knittable!

spinning yak top

Photos © Jennifer Leigh.

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