Tuesday, May 05, 2015


Once again, somebody complains about all the "unhelpful" numbers that I spew out.  I do admit that I like numbers.

Actually, the numbers would help, if she knew how to use them.  I do not use unhelpful numbers. However, I sometimes allow people who do not know how to use a number to see it.

The fastest way I know how to spin is double drive - without slip.  That means differential rotation speed (DRS) between the bobbin and flyer. DRS doubles or triples the speed of my spinning wheel. It is the difference between spinning 150 or 200 yards per hour and spinning a full hank of 560 yards all skeined per hour.   The math is in Alden Amos's Big Blue Book.  It is pages and pages, so I am not going to repeat it here.

To make the bobbin and flyer whorls, I must do the math.   A few minutes of math and wood turning to save hours and hours of spinning.

To do the math, I need to plan the kind of yarn, its grist, and calculate the twist.  See Alden Amos BBB pg 383.  I calculate DRS and make the whorls.  Grist. Twist. Yarn Construction (woolen/ worsted).  Give me 2 of the 3,  and I can tell you the third. The Bradford spin count system and DRS makes spinning specific yarns easy.  DRS defines the twist.  Each twist defines the grist of two yarns -- one worsted and one woolen.

Once I have the whorls, I can spin fine and fast for a long, long time. The whorls will last for millions of yards of singles.   A few hours of math and wood turning, and in a month I can spin what would take others 3 months to spin.  Of course, if you are the fastest spinner at the fair, it will take you 3 only 3 months and the others will take much longer.  It is a matter that DRS can control drafting at higher speeds than you can.

Now, you show me a pile of fleece, and tell me that you want as much yarn as possible spun from it.

I take out my "twisty stick" estimate the spin count, and given the weight of the fleece, I can easily calculate how much yarn can be spun from the pile (spinning at the spin count), and how long it will take.  Every contract spinner needed to be able to make these calculations.  Likewise, every factor needed to be able to make these calculations.  It was by getting such calculations correct that the Medici family made their fortune.

Or, if you want a particular grist of yarn, I can tell you if that grist can be reasonably spun from that wool, and if it can, how long it will take. Or, I take my twisty stick to the fair, and estimate how much effort it will be to spin THAT sack into THE yarn that I want.  Or, I can order 56 count long wool and know how it will spin. The Bradford system tells me what I need to know.

In spinning, time is money. The Bradford Spin Count system was the conversion factor for:
 pounds of wool <=> yards of yarn,
from which twist and time could be easily calculated.
It worked for many hundreds of years.  It still works.

I spent 50 years in the metric system. I loved it.  I still love it, but for spinning, the Bradford Spin Count System is easier.  It was developed and refined by generations of professionals.  For spinning wool, it is more helpful than metric.

I do not waste my time with unhelpful numbers.

Friday, May 01, 2015

The drop spindle as a baseline.

By the early medieval period, it was common for spinsters (professional spinners) to rent spinning wheels.  Spinsters were paid by the length of yarn they produced, and a spinning wheel allowed them to produce more yarn, so even after paying the rent on the spinning wheel, the spinner could have a higher net income.  (The large number of spinsters kept wagers down, so many spinsters did not have the capital to own their own wheel.)

I can spin yarns in the range of 3,000 to 8,000 ypp about a third faster (e.g., 1,300 rpm) with a spindle than I can with a typical modern wheel (1,000 rpm).  Since I am not terribly proficient with a drop spindle, I assume that professional spinners could spin with a drop spindle much faster than I can (e.g., more than 2,000 rpm for some grists.) Therefor, I assume that the spinning wheels of the early medieval period were much, much faster than the typical modern wheel.  My spinning wheel spins 2 or 3 times faster than I can spin with a spindle.  I think that spinning wheels circa 1400 likely inserted twist at ~2,500 rpm or more.   This is faster than contemplated by Alden Amos.

Just prior to 1,400 ce, there were just under 400,000 textile workers in Florence, but Flanders was actually a larger producer of woolen textiles, and there were significant textile production centers in France, and England. Thus, there was a significant market for spinning wheels.  This would have justified shops where groups of craftsmen specialized in making and repairing spinning wheels. These were spinning wheels for full time professional spinners.  Some of these spinners supported tapestry weavers. These wheels were not for hobby spinners or part-time subsistence spinners or cottage craft spinners.  Regardless of their skill, cottage craft spinners did not produce the tons of  gold, silver, and silk wrapped yarns that the better tapestry weavers demanded.  A cottage cannot provide the security required for handling large amounts of precious metals on a regular basis..

And time was money.  Professional spinners were paid by the yard of yarn produced, and wanted the fastest possible equipment.  This was not a matter of bragging rights for hobbyists, but of income to support the family.

All in all, I have no doubt that Florentine spinning wheels, and even more likely, wheels made in Flanders, could run at 2,500 rpm by about 1380. Metal workers and wood workers of the time could have make all the elements of my wheel that can spin at 4,000 rpm. As a one off object it would have been very expensive, but a shop that produced dozens of wheels per year could reduce costs. Yes, they would use boxwood where I use Delrin, but with plenty of lard oil, the boxwood bearing works -- it just splatters oil, and needs to be replaced after every 2,000 or 3,000 hours of use.

Such wheels do not show up in paintings of time.  The wheels in the paintings are more symbolic, than functional. Add up how long it would take for the depicted wheel to spin the yarn required to weave all the cloth painting. Even in paintings of "spinners", someone else is doing the bulk of the spinning to produce all the cloth shown in the painting.  The culmination of this symbolism:
 Vicky wearing clothing woven from 
finer yarns than what she is spinning!

The clothing worn by Queen Victoria was mill spun, but she shown with a replica of an old technology. I expect that the same thing also happened in earlier times.

Today, we have photographs of  people spinning, and they still have not spun the yarn for all the cloth in photograph.  Even people who claim that they can spin and weave all the clothing needed by their family.


The best you are likely to find is somebody that spins and uses that yarn for knitting their own socks and sweaters.  

Why was the art of earlier times so different? The simple answer is that human nature has not changed.  Old spinning technology symbolizes traditional values.  What would people have thought if QV was shown in the mill where the yarn for her dress was actually spun? As a setting for a portrait, a spinning factory in 1480 would have been just as jarring as photographing Q.V. in a spinning mill in 1880. And yet, such a mill would have been a better place, and a better way for Q. V. and her ladies to develop an understanding of the tasks and roles of the common women of England, than spinning a few yards of yarn at Buckingham, Osborne, or Balmoral

Certainly any yarn can be spun with a spindle.  Finer yarns are more easily spun with a supported spindle than with a drop spindle, but it is very possible to spin wool, at it's spin count, with a drop spindle. However, it is much, much easier if the spindle has a hook, rather then trying to use a half - hitch.  Some teachers have made fun of me of me when I first made this assertion, but I note when they spin yarns finer than about 11,000 ypp they tend to use a spindle with a (metal) hook,  I have yet to see them spin wool at it's spin count using a half-hitch.  In fact, I have yet to see them demonstrating spinning wool at its spin count with a spindle.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The end of needles

Why are knitting needles pointed?  Really, why?

The taper to the point acts as a wedge forcing the legs of the stitch open.  And, for knitting fibers such as linen with low elasticity, the taper gives clearance so a loop of  yarn and the needle will all fit through the working stitch at the same time.  And, a taper does facilitate some decrease stitches and many lace stitches.

However, the downside of the taper is that if the yarn is wrapped around the taper, then when slid on the full diameter shaft, that stitch will be tighter - a reasonable trick for knitting tighter fabrics.  However, one can get greater uniformity of tension/gauge by simply using smaller needles.

Hand knitters need the wedge effect to help them poke the needle into the working stitch. However, a knitter using a knitting sheath has leverage, and does not need the wedge effect.  In fact, the taper to a point makes it more likely that stitches will be dropped, the yarn split, and the taper requires that the knitter make larger motions (e.g., inserts needle past taper for even gauge).

A good rule of thumb is that smaller motions allow faster knitting.  Thus, a knitter with a knitting sheath can use cylindrical needles (no tapers to points) to reduce the size of their motions and knit faster.  Um, some skill is involved.

For ordinary fabric, I  have moved to knitting needles with flat ends.

Using the US1 needles that taper to points, my knitting motion is about 12 - 15 mm.  Using the needles with flat ends my knitting motion is about half that and is noticeably faster.   These days, I have sets of gansey needles (US00, US0, US1)  with flat ends for knitting faster. (Cable patterns require pointed needles.) And,  the smaller motions allow using shorter needles and still being able to use the spring action. This is the small object solution that I was seeking. The needles above are 9" long, and they can still deliver the gansey knitting spring action.

However, I think swaving (rotating bent, blunt needles held in a knitting sheath) is still the technique of choice for fine gloves and socks.

On a sail boat, short, blunt needles are are better.  

These days, I also use a lot of  yarns that are rather "splitty".  Flat ended needles work well with splitty yarns.

Now the flat ends are a real bitch for the decreases at turning the heel and toe, but that is less than 1% of the stitches in a boot sock, and I can either struggle with those stitches or I can switch over to pointy needles for those rounds.   (Revised to say that the flat ends require a special trick, but once the trick is acquired, decreases are fast and easy.  It just took me a while to visualize and implement the technique.)

And, again, flat ended needles are not for hand held knitting - one does not have enough leverage and control to make them work. And flat ends do not work for lace.  Otherwise they are another tool that with another set of skills allows knitting better and faster.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Myth and certainty

I find that I must spin a few hundred yards of  fine thread to be certain that I am spinning that wool at at its spin count. A picture really does not not say anything about over all grist. A control card is not certain because different yarns have different loft, and hence different thicknesses for the same grist. A short length of thread can differ from the average of the hank.  No! Spin count is spin count.  You know you are spinning at the spin count, when a hank (560 yards) has about the correct weight for that spin count. And, a full hank of 560 only needs weighting to the nearest gram.  6 grams and it is an 80s (or maybe a 76s. Who cares? close enough for hand spinning).  10 grams and it is a 45s. 45 grams and it is a 10s.

Weighting hanks of a full 560 yards is no extra work, because, without spinning many, many hanks of about that grist you are not going to be a good enough spinner to spin wool at its spin count.  So really, all you need to be certain of your grist is a skeiner and a kitchen gram scale.

I spin and weigh many hanks,  I am certain of the grist that I spin, and I frequently spin wool at its Bradford system spin count.

And, still the myth in the modern hand spinning world is that wool cannot be hand spun at its Bradford spin count. (Or, at least that I cannot spin wool at its Bradford count!)  I get this myth spit at me over and over by people that do not have the elan to try and spin fine.  It is a myth perpetuated by laziness and ignorance.

If other spinners would only try, they also could spin wool at its Bradford spin count. Along the way they will spin many, many hanks that miss their target grist, but with a skeiner and a kitchen scale they can be sure of when they have arrived, and are spinning wool at its Bradford spin count. However, modern spinners are so wound up in the myth that it is impossible to spin so fine that they do not even try.  In fact, they do know from the results of spinning contests such as the Longest Thread that it is very possible to spin at the spin count and even finer.  It really comes down to a question of how fine a yarn can be spun at a useful rate. And, that is a matter of tools and skills.

Wool singles spun at their Bradford spin count are not particularly fine compared to say yarns spun for competitions.  Bradford spin count singles are robust enough for handling in a commercial weaving environment.  Bradford spin count singles were the standard product of  commercial hand spinners, whose customers were weavers.  It was a commercial product that was produced at commercial rates -- hand spinners spun Bradford spin count singles at a rapid pace.  This is what professional spinners did for a living for hundreds of years.

Modern spinners have abandoned these tools and skills, and the myth is that they cannot be reclaimed.  You may not want to use the tools of a professional spinner or acquire the skills of a traditional professional spinner, but reciting the myth will not keep others from using those very useful tools and skills, and you will look like a fool.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Spinning at more than 210 wpi

I recently mentioned that 56 count wool spun at its spin count is a bundle of 20 fibers. Such a bundle  is just over 125 microns in diameter. The best parts of the Rambouillet fleece that I get from Anna Harvey are 80 count or ~18 microns in diameter, so a bundle of 20 of those fibers will be just over ~90 microns in diameter -- easily much less than 1/210 of an inch, so we can expect wraps per inch of 210 or more from a bundle of 20 fibers.

Drafting 20 fibers from 80 count wool is not that different from drafting 20 fibers from 56 count wool. Making yarn from those drafted fibers just takes some 22-24 tpi, fingers sensitive enough to control the flow of twist up into the drafting triangle, experience to know what the single you want looks like, and the courage to spin that fine.  Oh!, and very well prepared fiber that drafts easily.

The path to spinning 80s (210 wpi) is:

  1. Knowing it can be done.
  2. Wanting to do it.
  3. Having the tools.
  4. Building the skills.
Today the main problems are that most spinners do not know it can be done and the tools are not widely available.  However, any wood turner with the skill to make a functional wine barrel spigot has the turning skills to make the appropriate bobbin and whorls.  You can find somebody like that at any wood working club, and there are wood working clubs everywhere.   Alden Amos's Big Blue Book will give YOU a path to the calculations for the necessary whorl diameters.

ANYONE who says singles of 210 wpi cannot be spun is ignorant of both science and history.

I will say that double drive, with  differential rotation speed is far, far, and away the easiest way to spin 80s. Then, a spindle of ~15 grams - I use a drop spindle with a removable whorl so as the copp builds, I can take the whorl off and use the copp as the whorl.  Then, comes Scotch tension.  And this afternoon, I just cannot seem to be able to tweak my IT enough to spin 80s on a practical basis.

The steps from 10s at 75 wpi to 56s at 175 wpi are easier than the step from mediums at 175 wpi to fines at 210 wpi.  Thus, I suggest that anyone planning to spin 80s make up the whorls required for 10s, 20s, 40s, and 60s, and the build the skills required for spinning each of these threads in a step wise fashion.

=> I use flyers where the flyer whorls are threaded to fit onto the threaded end of flyer shaft.  Then I use threaded inserts in the center of the flyer whorl.  The threaded insert is placed in the whorl blank, and then the whorl is turned on a bolt screwed into the insert, and held in the jaws of the lathe. Required precision for turning flyer whorls for spinning 80s is about 1%, so a 50 mm whorl needs to be turned within 0.5 mm or 1/50" of the design dimension.  Lower count singles require much less precision in their whorls.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Best

One of my sculpture professors was friends with a world class silversmith/artist. The silversmith would come up and visit several times a year, and we would gather to hear his wisdom.

Once, he told us about how lonely it was being the best. He said, that when you are the best, there is no teacher.  The best must develop their own skills and likely design/make their own tools.  He said if you want to stay the best, one needs to spend 20% of one's time developing new techniques, learning new skills, and making new tools.

In the past, craftsman spinners spun for craftsman weavers. Most of the spinner's products were threads in the 5,600 ypp to the 45,000 ypp range. (This s the range of the Bradford system of  fiber/yarn measure.)  Such threads were used (or plied into yarns) for garments, upholstery, and even tapestries and sails.  Look at the old master paintings and (and tapestries) remember that every bit of cloth in them was woven from hand spun yarn.  Spinning for weaving is an old tradition.
There was a lot of spinning in a senator's toga.

Today, most hand spinners do not produce singles in that range of grists, and many who do are focused on entries into spinning competitions such as Longest Thread.  Thus, very few hand spinners are producing such threads primarily to be used in making other objects.  And, in fact, when I set about to make my first 5-ply sport-weight gansey yarn, I was told by "experienced" hand spinning historical enactors that it had not been done and could not be done.  Such advice conflicted with both history and science.  I find that many spinners have a poor grasp of history / science.  This is not to say that they will not try to floor you with dates.

Thus, spinning singles suited to weaving (and plying into very high quality knitting yarn) is a lonely place.  However, the yarns constructed from fine plies are nice - better than what the pack of spinners are spinning. While we have become accustomed to the fragility of knitwear made up of loosely knit 2-ply, many retailers offer knitwear of rather firmly knit 4-ply yarns that are much better. And, when I say better, I mean warmer for the weight, more durable, better drape, and nicer hand. Why would any spinner/knitter allow LL Bean and Costco to sell better sweaters than what the spinner/knitter is producing? NO!  If it worth making by hand, it is worth making as good or better - that is the craftsman's way.  And, like it or not, that means more and finer plies.  (If you wanted your toga to drape properly, you had it woven from fine, multi-ply yarns. Look at the Roman spindles! Many were highly optimized for spinning rather fine singles.  Those spindles will produce fine singles faster than most modern spinners can produce such singles on their wheels.

And, higher grist yarns are thinner and have a smaller tolerance for errors and defects.  Thinner yarns must be made to higher quality standards.When 560 yards of yarn weighs only 20 grams, there is not much room for slubs.  And a thin yarn without enough twist is more likely to drift apart.  A thin single must be more consistent. Again, thinner yarns are better.

This morning, I dug out the 20 tpi whorl and am spinning ~30,000 ypp (67 meters/ gram) singles from 56 count (25 micron) medium wool. The wool is lustrous, and strong. The single is a bundle of ~20 wool fibers. The hand-dandy electronic micrometer says the single is 0.005" in diameter - about 1/200"; that makes them a comfortable 175 wpi. The tachometer says the flyer is running at 2,400 rpm, so the bobbin is running at ~2,500 rpm, and the single is being spun at 124 inches per minute or ~ 160 yards per hour (145 m/h).  Not bad for someone that has not spun that grist since before Christmas.  I will spin 10 grams/ 670 yards and stop. (Then I must spade the tomato bed, and that will spoil my hands for such spinning for a few days.) These are soft singles, suited to a senator's toga or a lady's robe.  I do not need such singles just now. It is practice to maintain skills.  It must be measured as a test of my current skills.  I did not bother to re-comb and diz the roving I am using to spin 10s (worsted 5,600 ypp singles) that I do want now.  10s, I can spin after gardening.)

The trick is to spin such high  grist singles fast enough to make them useful.  Frankly, I do not know of any other hand spinners that spin garment weight yarns as fast as I do.   I do not even know of any hand spinners that come close to my speed.  And yet, I am certain that 300 years ago many spinners in Bruges could spin much, much faster than I do.  If all those spinners that claim to have the wisdom of ages actually had that wisdom, they would spin much faster than I do.  

Because fine singles do produce better fabrics and objects, I do expect other spinners to eventually follow me. I do believe in merit of product. By then I will have developed new techniques, new skills, new tools, and I will have moved forward.

What I am saying is that I am an Autodidact, and snide remarks and insults from the pack do not affect my spinning.  If you are a craftsman spinner, I am happy to exchange hints with you so that we both may become better spinners. And just as many folks play football, but there are not many NFL quarterbacks around, we should not expect that there are too many craftsman spinners around.  
Edited to add that the grist of the first 625 yd was only 52 m/g or (24,000 ypp, 150 wpi).  I guess that is what happens when I do not spin mediums for 4 months.

Edited to add: after soaking my hands in hand lotion all night, removing the film of belt dressing from the bobbin whorl, and  combing/dizing the fiber,this morning I was spinning 30,000+ ypp/  8 grams per hank.  It takes competence, but spinning wool at its spin count is not that difficult.  Wool fiber can be spun much thinner - 9 fibers in the single can be spun. For 56 count wool that would produce a single on the order of 60,000 ypp (250 wpi), but that is a very fragile yarn - OK for contests, but not for commercial weaving. Spinners spin a few feet of that, take a pix, and say, "Look how fine I am spinning!" 

People compare my singles to those pix and say, "You are not spinning as fine as XYZ!"  No, I am not, I am spinning miles of usable yarn.  On the other hand, my usable yarn can be spun from 56 count wool spun at 175 wpi. Part of its usability is that it is well measured.  If I have not been doing it on a regular basis, sometimes it takes some warm up to get back in the groove.  However, once I am  back in groove, it is every so easy.  I guess, I need to go get back in the fines groove.  Where is that that 24 tpi flier whorl?  (The oil finish that I put on them before storage last fall took the labels off
  :  ( 

The 20 fiber bundle was a grist that could be spun at a commercial rate (quickly) and it made a yarn that was robust enough to be handled in commercial weaving operations and when woven, made a good fabric.  

Saturday, April 11, 2015


There is a group that says,"If there is no picture, it did not happen!"

They want me to take pictures of what I do, or they do not believe that I did it.

They do not pay me for my work, or even say, "Thank you!"  They do not come up with new ideas or technologies or even improvements on the old technologies. The just like  to look at pictures.

In the distant past, I often obliged.  Then, I was taking a video of  finer spinning, and at internet resolution, it looked like  pantomime.  The fine thread just disappeared!   I could put more effort into doing the photography, but taking pix of threads that are 0.005" in diameter does take a lot more effort.

I have stopped pandering to people that just want to look at pix.  Their belief or disbelief does not affect my spinning.  However taking good photographs does suck up time when I could be spinning.

I hear a new Star Wars movie is coming out.  All of the folks that just want pix, can BUY a copy.  It is time they paid for pix.

Some things are true, whether or not there are pix, and sometimes pix do not prove that something is true.