Up close in the microscope

Wool fibers seen through a microscope

The other day I had a spinning date with my friend Anna and her cousin Helena. We had a great time spinning and chatting away. Anna also brought her microscope. I had brought staples from all my current fleeces and I went bananas with the microscope. Here are some examples.

First up is the Swedish finewool, one of my favourite breeds. I think the staple is from the neck, it is very short and fine. You can see the crimp in the microscope and how fine the fiber is. There is a lot of air trapped between the winding fibers. I want to keep this air when I spin it, to make a warm and soft yarn. Therefore I spin it with long draw from hand-carded rolags.

Three staples of white, crimpy wool
Swedish finewool
White wool seen through a microscope
Swedish finewool in the microscope

Next up is white superfine Shetland wool, long staples of fine and crimpy fibers. In this comparison, though, the finewool looks finer than the Shetland wool, and slightly crimpier. And I can see some peat between the Shetland fibers! It is appealing to spin it with long draw to keep the air in. However, these fibers are very long and they work better with the combs to make a strong and shiny yarn with short draw. Any shorter fibers or comb leftovers will be carded and spun with long draw, though.

Two staples of white crimpy wool
White Shetland
White wool seen through a microscope. There are pieces of peat in the wool.
White Shetland in the microscope

For comparison, here is a Leicester staple, with completely different characteristics. The fibers are long and shiny and with waves more than crimp. In the microscope you can see only straight fibers and they seem a bit coarser than the Shetland and finewool samples. It is easy to imagine these fibers organized parallel in a strong yarn. I have spun this yarn with short forward draw from hand- combed tops into a strong and shiny warp yarn.

A staple of wavy wool
Leicester wool
white wool seen through a microscope
Leicester wool in the microscope

This is so much fun!

The diversity of a fleece

In a previous post I wrote about fleece sorting and my fascination of the diversity within a breed and within a single fleece. I chose a few staples from my recent purchase to show you.

Staples from one single Shetland fleece, washed in warm water with a little organic shampoo and three rinses. Bought at Jamieson & Smith Shetland woolbrokers

The first fleece is a Shetland fleece in the colour Mooskit. As you can see, there is a variation in colour, staple length, crimp, fiber fineness and staple definition. The shortest fibers on the left are from the neck area, very short, crimpy and fine, they remind me more of Swedish finewool than Shetland wool. I would card this and spin with long draw on either a Navajo spindle or a supported spindle. I would probably treat the short fibers on the far right the same way. The two staples closest to the ruler are longer, darker and a bit coarser, perhaps from the rump area. I could either comb and spin these separately for a more sturdy yarn, or together with finer parts of the fleece to give the yarn strength and colour. The long light staples on the mid left (from the sides) look like they are dying to be combed and spun with short draw on a spinning wheel. On these staples you can also see the break in the fibers about 1 cm from the cut end, where the old fibers are thinned and new have started to grow out. This fleece had such breaks on some parts and they were easy enough to pull off. Combing would also remove these bits.

Another Shetland fleece, washed in warm water and three rinses. Bought at Jamieson & Smith Shetland woolbrokers

The second fleece is a white Shetland fleece. The variation is not as big as in the Mooskit fleece, but there are still differences. From very fine, crimpy and clean back and side wool to coarser and more wavy belly and rump wool. I could choose to comb it all together for several skeins of consistent yarn. I could also divide the fleece into different qualities for different purposes. I would love to use some of the finest parts to practice spinning extremely thin yarn.

Both of these fleeces are Shetland fleeces and graded as super fine, but they look quite different. I have another six Shetland fleeces and they have all varied quite a lot. Shetland sheep is a primitive breed, which I have written about in an earlier post. Among other things, they shed their wool as I showed in the Mooskit fleece above. All my other coloured Shetland fleeces have had breaks in the staples where new and old fibers meet. But much less the white fleeces. My theory is that there has been more pressure on the breeding of the white sheep than on the coloured ones and thus this feature has disappeared in some of the white sheep.

The advantage I have as a hand spinner is that I can dive into a fleece like this and plan how I want to use it. I can sort it in an endless amount of ways to fit my purposes or I could combine different parts of the fleece to get the most out of the different qualities of different parts of the fleece. I can play, experiment and above all, learn from what I see in one single fleece if I just look close enough.

Spinning on a supported spindle – step by step

I thought I’d write something about how I spin on a supported spindle. I learned a lot from Fleegle’s book about supported spinning, I highly recommend it.

Starting on an empty spindle

An empty spindle shaft is quite slippery and it’s not always easy to start spinning. I take my fiber, unspun, and wrap it a few times round the shaft quite high, perhaps 3–5 cm from the upper tip. Then I flick the spindle in motion, stop, draft and roll on to the shaft. I repeat these steps a few times, until I have a bit of a length. I transfer the spun yarn onto my fiber hand and then, without removing the fiber from the shaft completely, push the starting fiber down to the placement of the permanent cop. I wind on most of the spun thread on the permanent cop, saving a length to spiral up the shaft. And I’m ready to spin!

Spinning continuously with a short draw

When I spin on a supported spindle I spin continuously. This took me a lot of time to learn and I took it step by step.

There are two major parts of this process (well, three actually, but I will get to the third part later on):

  1. Spinning
  2. Rolling the spun yarn onto the temporary cop

For these two steps I need to keep the yarn in different angles in relation to the shaft. When spinning, the yarn is kept in a low angle, 5–45°. This way, the yarn is sliding off the tip every turn and the yarn gets spun. When rolling the yarn onto the shaft, the yarn is kept at a 90° angle from the shaft. So in the spinning process I alternate these two tasks and angles.

Apart from the flicking, I don’t touch the spindle. All the support it needs comes from the spinning surface. The spinning hand is controlling the yarn and the fiber hand is controlling the fiber. I make sure I get a good flick to keep the spinning going long and strong.

Let’s get back to the spinning. For a continuous spin I flick the tip with my spinning hand, preferably with three fingers and my thumb.

I do this in a series of movements, not stopping in between: 5–45° Flick, draft, 90° flick, roll on. If I want to do this with park and draft I stop between: 5–45° Flick. Stop. I draft until I reach my desired amount of twist. Stop. 90° flick, roll on.

There are a few tricks to the spinning that you hardly see in regular motion, but in slow motion they are visible: When I draft I turn my fiber hand against the spinning direction, i.e. anti-clockwise for a clockwise spinning. Just briefly to make the drafting easier and to even out bumps. And just at the beginning of the flicking to roll the yarn onto the temporary cop I take charge by rolling less than a quarter of a round in the wrong direction (anti-clockwise).

Spinning continuously with a long draw

The method is basically the same as for a short draw, but with one difference. When I have flicked the spindle for spinning and put my fingers back on the yarn, I repeatedly open and close my spinning hand fingers on the yarn to let the twist go further into the fiber. This gets you a longer draft before the yarn breaks and a more fluffy yarn.

Moving yarn to permanent cop

So, on to step 3. Using the temporary cop is for convenience. I want to be as economical in my movements as possible and enjoy the continuous motion. But sooner or later I have to move the cop town to its permanent place. So I make a butterfly. With my fiber hand I lift the yarn interchangeably with my thumb and pinkie and thus transfer the yarn from the temporary cop to my fiber hand. When all the yarn from the temporary cop is wound on to my hand I transfer it down to the permanent cop. I help the rolling on with the spinning hand by flicking the shaft. I also make sure I make a neat cop. With a sloppy cop there is a risk the end will never be found again if I lose it.

Plying

Usually I don’t ply on my spindles. It takes too much time and is quite boring. But I do it occasionally when I have just a small amount of yarn to ply. So, I made a short video on plying. There’s nothing special about plying on a supported spindle really. I skip the temporary cop in this part of the process, instead I tilt the spindle a little away from the fiber hand and wind the yarn directly on to the permanent cop. In this video I ply from both ends of a center-pull ball. I keep a fiber hand finger between the singles to keep them in order. Then I just ply away.

Fiber is from Swedish finewool sheep. Spindles are from Maine fiber tools and Malcolm Fielding. Spinning bowl also from Malcolm Fielding. Hoody pattern is Kate Davies’ Northmavine Hoody, yarn from Jamieson & Smith.

Happy spinning!