Spinning Workshop Part 3: Fiber Types and Preps
So, we’ve talked all about what you’re spinning with… but what on earth are you going to spin? I’m so glad you asked that!
Protein, Cellulose, and Man-made Fibers
The first big division between fibers you might want to spin is between protein and cellulose and man-made fibers, or, more simply, between animal-sourced, plant-sourced, and manufactured fibers. (Hang on to that ‘manufactured’ concept - it’s slippery, and we’ll get back to it!)
Protein (Animal) Fibers
Most people (but not all!) start here. What’s in this category? Well, our beloved sheep and their wool, for one! But also alpaca, llama, angora, buffalo, yak, silk, paco-vicuna, cashmere, mohair, and many more!
The common ground is that they all come from an animal of some sort.
Sheep and alpaca do need to be sheared, or they can have fatal problems (like heatstroke, skin-rot and fly strike); these are domesticated animals that have lost the ability to shed their fiber annually. Animals like buffalo, yak, and paco-vicuna shed their soft undercoat naturally, and people collect the shed fiber. Cashmere goats shed their soft, warm undercoats, but, as they’re domestic, usually the goatherd offers the goat food and combs out the itchy shedding fiber as the goat enjoys a snack. Some types of angora rabbits are ‘plucked’ (shedding fiber is removed by the owner’s fingers as it loosens) or combed, but other types are sheared like sheep.(If an angora rabbit is left to clean itself of its own shedding fur, it can get hairballs that can cause fatal gut blockages.)
A Bit About Sheep Breeds
Sheep wool is the most common protein fiber most of us will encounter.
There are many different types of sheep, and you may have heard people discussing all sorts of breeds from rare breeds to favourite breeds to passionate arguments over the ‘best’ wool for spinning.
Let’s settle that one right now. The ‘best’ wool is the one that suits you and your particular project.
We’re not going to go into this in depth - we’d be here for years - but here’s some starting points:
Wool can be sorted into basic categories: fine wool, medium wool, and longwool are some we commonly use for handspinning. (There’s also the ‘carpet wool’ category.) There are other ways to categorize sheep (so many ways!), but this one is simple and useful, and we’ll be using it for now.
Fine wool sheep are mostly the Merino and related breeds. To fit in this category, the tiny wool fibers need to be between 16 and 24 microns in diameter. (For reference, a human hair is around 75 microns across, and a bacteria is around 3 to 4 microns across.) You might find Polworth, Rambouillet, or Corriedale classed as fine wools, along with Merino. (Sometimes Corriedale edges up into Medium). These wools tend to be soft to wear, easy - but sometimes a bit slippery - to spin, they take dye well, tend to look matte (not shiny) and they felt easily. The staple length may be a bit shorter than other wools, as well. If you’re looking for fiber for next to skin wear, or for someone who is sensitive to itchy wool, finewool may be a good place to start.
Medium wool usually has fibers 25-31 microns in diameter, and is a little coarser to the touch. Sheep breeds in this category include Corriedale, Targee, Dorset, Southdown, Suffolk and Jacob. These wools are generally more resistant to felting (but they do vary!), they can be more hard-wearing than fine wools and are often easy to spin. The itch or prickle factor can be higher here, so if soft wool is important to you, these are good fibers to check against the inside of your wrist before settling on.
Longwools are less about fiber diameter (though they are often a little coarser) and more about the length and structure of the locks. Longwools are (you guessed it) long! They usually have soft curl rather than the tight crimp of other wools, and look like glossy ringlets for a porcelain doll. They generally have a silky shine that gives a high gloss to anything made with them, and they are powerfully strong. They’re definitely not a next-to-skin wool for most people, at least not knitted or crocheted (they lay flatter when woven, but still…). They make beautiful, hard-wearing coats, bags, rugs and wall-hangings. They can be tricky to spin and they resist felting.
Many people suggest starting with a medium wool when learning to spin, but plenty of beginners have learned on merino (or cotton, or almost anything else!) What seems to be most important is that you like the fiber, it’s a ‘good’ (not felted, not too compacted) prep, and you like working with it. If it’s a pleasure to touch and look at, you’ll be more likely to relax a bit and enjoy the process, and that will make everything easier. I would also add, it helps if the fiber you start with is inexpensive enough that you aren’t too fussed about ‘ruining’ it, especially if you tend to get stressed about budgets or spending on yourself.
Cellulose (Plant) Fibers
Some spinners prefer not to use animal products. Some spinners are (gasp) allergic to wool! Some spinners live in warm climates where animal fibers aren’t very useful most of the time. Some projects just need something other than angora, you know? There are any number of reasons a spinner - even a beginning spinner - would turn to plant fibers.
Cotton is a very common fiber in our world today, and a fairly recent addition to commercial spinning fiber. It comes from the fluff around the seeds of the cotton plant, and can be grown in naturally occurring greens and browns - pretty cool, huh?
Cotton tends to be a very short staple fiber, that is, the individual fibers are each very short, so it can be hard to get them to stay together while you’re learning to make yarn. It’s not impossible, though - generations of tiny children on the Indian subcontinent learned to spin on cotton, among others. If this is the fiber you truly love, then you can learn with it, too! We believe in you! Pick an appropriate spinning tool - a supported spindle, or a spinning wheel that can be set to have less tension on your forming yarn, as you learn. It will also help to look at tutorials focused specifically on spinning cotton - the techniques are a little different from wool, and the signs you’ll be looking for will be different, as well.
Bast Fibers: Linen and Friends
‘Bast’ fibers are fibers from the skin of the stem (or sometimes from very tough leaves) of a plant. The most common example is linen, from the flax plant. But hemp, jute, and ramie are all bast fibers, too. There are more, but many aren’t likely to be commercially available (like stinging nettle!) or very common (like banana leaf fiber).
Bast fibers are long and can be a bit awkward to handle. Traditionally, they were often placed on a distaff (essentially ‘they were tied onto a stick in a nice, organized fashion’) to keep them from tangling while they were being spun. Pay attention to fiber management, be careful about joins, and don’t add too much twist - you’ll be a bast fiber pro in no time!
This is where things get a liiiitle sticky. These fibers absolutely have a plant source, but they’re treated with chemicals to turn them into a sort of gooey soup, and then they’re extruded, like teeny spaghetti noodles, and allowed to dry into long, silky strands. No matter what the original plant source, the final product is essentially indistinguishable on a chemical level - it’s rayon. (Or, okay, occasionally viscose. But usually rayon.)
People may call these ‘bio-synthetics’ or ‘semi-synthetic’ fibers. The source material (bamboo, soy, seaweed, coffee, logging or paper industry waste) is renewable; the process itself is not strictly ‘natural’ and often not environmentally friendly, though manufacturers vary. Some people will class these as ‘synthetics’ and others will class them as ‘plant fibers’, and other people will tuck them somewhere in-between. (I’m sticking them here and adding this caveat, because I dislike controversy, but prize accuracy. You can file them anywhere you like!)
These are soft fibers, with a staple length decided by the manufacturer, and with a silk-like luster. They’re often, but not always, blended with another fiber. They can require care and attention in spinning (I find they stick to my hands, if I’m not careful, and they are quite slippery), but they’re lovely on the skin, and a nice blend with cotton, wool, or linen as well as on their own.
Most of the time, other than the bio-synthetics, synthetic or man-made fibers will be additions to a spinning blend, rather than the whole bag of roving (hardly anyone actually hand-spins acrylic, you know?).
Nylon is a common addition to fiber intended for sock yarn - it adds strength and wear resistance, especially if the fiber is a fine wool, like Merino, that might not hold up well on its own.
Sometimes, you will find nylon spinning fiber on its own, treated to act as a replacement for a very soft fiber, like cashmere or angora.
You will often find synthetics in art batts to add ‘sparkle’. If you see ‘stellina’ or angelina’, those are polyester-based fibers that are used as tinsel or glitter in spinning.
Commercial Fiber Preps
Most of these preps can be replicated by spinners at home with various tools, but for the purposes of this beginner workshop, we’ll assume you’re purchasing prepared fiber for spinning, and not heading out to grow some flax or shear a sheep.
Clarifying terms/definitions for the purposes of this mini workshop: “roving” and pre-drafting
The term “roving” has been misapplied and used to refer to both top and roving (and sometimes spinning fiber in general). Roving is actually a form of prep. It lends itself better to a woolen-style of spinning as the fibers have been allowed to jumble all together in carding and then been pulled into a rope-like form. Carding generally does not remove anything from the fiber, so second cuts and vegetable matter tends to remain behind. As shown in the video linked below, if you pull a piece off you’ll generally see varying or raggedy ends of fiber reflecting the mishmash of locks during carding.
Top, whether commercially processed or done by hand, can look similar to roving at first glance as it’s also in rope-like form. But top is fiber that has been combed during processing to align all of the fibers so that they run parallel (and then often heat set to remove crimp so that it’s super smooth). This removes anything that doesn’t fall in line, such as second cuts, weak tips, short fibers, and often a lot of vegetable matter, so top makes for a cleaner spinning experience. Top also lends itself better to a worsted-style of spinning as the fibers already being in alignment and processed for uniformity make them draft smoothly.
Commercially prepared top is likely what you’ll start spinning with as it’s widely available, usually less expensive than roving, and because uniformity is an integral part of its creation it’s pretty close to the same every time. Which isn’t to say that roving is hard to come by either! However, roving is more likely to be found from farms, independent sellers, and wool-processing mills.
A note about identifying top by pulling a staple-length out: hand-dyeing can compact fiber and reactivate the twist, so when you pull a staple length out the fiber ends won’t necessarily be all aligned.
Even when what you want is top, if you’re searching for fiber online, the term ‘roving’ is so commonly used for all fiber that ends up in a roughly snake-like form, that if you don’t include ‘roving’ in your search terms, you may be missing a lot of the fiber you’re actually looking for. It can be worth it to search for ‘roving’ and then look for the word ‘top’ in the extended description.
Other common fiber preps
We’ve already discussed top and roving, but some other very common preps you’re likely to see for sale are batts and rolags. Both of these preps lend themselves more to woolen-style spinning as they’re produced by carding. Batts are sheets/rectangles of fiber made using a drum carder, and can be spun in a variety of ways: pulled by hand or using a diz to pull into roving, spun from the corner, torn off and spun in chunks, stripped by color (especially if you want to preserve the color runs in a layered batt), etc.
Rolags are traditionally made using hand cards (though many are also made using blending boards), but essentially they’re a poofy little roll of fiber and you spin them from the end. Punis are similar but usually the term applies to cotton and they’re rolled a bit firmer than rolags.
Sliver is essentially a thinner version of roving. It has no twist in it whereas roving generally has a very slight amount (not anywhere near spinning twist, but still a small amount).
“Pre-drafting” is another term that gets misused. It’s a general catchall for preparing your fiber for spinning, but often it’s applied to a specific type of pre-drafting--attenuating. Attenuating your fiber is when you essentially pre-draft it, pulling the fiber a staple length at a time to loosen it so it will draft easier. This can be very helpful if not necessary when using fiber that has gotten severely compacted. Newer spinners may also find attenuated fiber easier to spin as you will have already removed some of the space for drafting and won’t be juggling treadling, managing your twist, tracking your treadling if on a wheel or the spin of your spindle, and tugging at your fiber to get it to draft. However, like most of the pre-drafting techniques, attenuating will affect the way your color on a hand-painted braid comes out.
Fluffing- this is when you gently pull apart your roving/top horizontally, opening it up a bit. I (owenj) do this with almost all of my hand-painted fiber as they’re often compacted a bit from the dyeing process and/or getting squashed by other stuff in my stash.
Photo: Fluffed fiber on the left, un-fluffed on the right.
Stripping- this is when you divide your fiber lengthwise. There are a number of reasons you may want to do this: to control the bulk of your fiber, to control color runs, or for specific techniques (fractal spinning requires you to strip your fiber at least twice). However, make sure you don’t strip your fiber down to the size of your yarn. If you do this then you can’t draft without creating a single thinner than what you wanted--you can only add twist.
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