Filling a spindle

Posted in spinning, Uncategorized by tchemgrrl on June 24, 2010

A little while back at Susan’s*, I picked up a new spindle of Jim’s and some superwash BFL dyed in cheerful gender-neutral colors–I think the colorway is Autumn Sunset, but it’s a considerably more orange dyelot than usual. Just what I wanted. I started spinning it up right away, and have continued working on it off and on for the last month or so. I was planning to make a 3-ply yarn, and was initially thinking that I might need to split the fiber into 6 balls of singles if I wanted to end up with a easy-to-work-with spindle-full. But then, I spun up nearly a third of the fiber without even noticing. How easy!

Then I got thinking a bit about plying. I had plenty of space left on the spindle even after spinning up a third of the fiber–it was only the weight that was starting to annoy me while drafting. How much yarn could I *actually* pack onto this same spindle if I wasn’t worrying so much about drafting?

200 yards

The answer: at least 3 times the weight of the spindle itself. Then I ran out of singles and was starting to lose patience anyhow, but I’m sure I could have fit more on there if I’d been inclined to.

There are regular conversations on Ravelry about how to fit more yarn onto a spindle, or how much yarn can fit on a spindle, that sort of thing. So I thought I’d show my method by taking a picture every 30ish yards, so you could see how the yarn builds up. (I actually took these pictures in the reverse order while winding off, so the cops are a little sloppier than they were while being built up.)

First off, the spindle. This is a 1.1 ounce spindle, with a 2.75 inch diameter whorl, and 9.5 of shaft below the whorl. I’d call the physics of the spindle a nice middle ground–neither a fast center-weighted spinner that stops quickly or a slow spinner that goes for hours. I actually have another spindle of Jim’s with a wider whorl that I usually use for plying, but this time I found it an entertainment to spin and ply a yarn all from one spindle.

20 yards

About 20 yards in. I tend to work from the top and build my way down, but I thought I’d try working a bit farther down the shaft than usual this time around. To start with, I usually have a cone-shaped cop, or something that runs parallel down from the whorl before tapering down to a V. Also, since I knew that I would be packing a lot of yarn on, I was more careful to very tightly wind this first section, so that if/when I dropped the spindle, the whole cop wouldn’t slide down. I’d love to wind the whole thing on really tightly, but that starts to bother my wrist. Everything’s a deviation from the spherical cow, in the end.

You can also see a bit of crosswinding here, which I mostly prefer to do until the cop gets really unwieldy.

50 yards

At 50 yards, it’s still mostly a parallel-then-tapered cop, but the center is just starting to bulge out. I don’t really calculate this, but I think I generally start building the center up when the diameter of the cop is about 1/2 the diameter of the whorl. This allows for some spindle tricks later, and still gives me plenty of space up there if things get sloppy and need a few courses of fresh yarn to hold the whole thing together.

(You can also see my extra plying twist in that loose little bit of plied yarn. Two of the three singles composing this yarn were sitting around for a while, and I was aiming for a slightly overplied yarn to give it some more elasticity. The combination leads to kinky yarn right off the spindle, but it should calm down with washing.)

80 yards

110 yards

140 yards

80, then 110, then 140 yards, and the center is distinctly bulging, with the cop starting to be built out much more than down. (It’s also a nice series of pictures that show the variations in the colorway!) At this stage, I pretty much only wind down to the bottom if there are a few strands getting loose and misbehaving. As I go, I really use the yarn from the building cop as a structural net to hold the underlying layers in place. This is much different than winding a loose ball for knitting, where I’m more likely to wind it any old way. But the knitting ball isn’t going to be getting spun at a few thousand rpm for a few hours, and I’m not going to need it to be cohesive enough for more than minimal handling. Not so for the spindle–by the end, I’ll need to have my hand partly on the cop to add twist and wind on. It helps to have something stable to grab onto! This is also why I like spindles with long shafts. I can’t stand trying to spin or wind on from some teensy bit of wood at the bottom.

170 yards

A little before this point, the “belly” of the cop was getting near to equalling the diameter of the whorl. So by this point, at 170 yards, yarn management tricks and planning start to become more useful.

Why? Well because at this point if I had some yarn going straight up from the bottom of the spindle to the notch, to the hook, the yarn would probably slide out of the notch and the spindle’d go whirling off across the floor. It’s part of the physics of all that torque–the yarn isn’t especially inclined to stay where it is. But if the yarn comes up from underneath the whorl, THEN over the notch, then it’s much more inclined to hold together, because there’s a bit of tension being kept on the yarn, in the direction almost exactly opposite to the force trying to pull the yarn off the spindle.

So what I’m doing at this point when I wind on goes like this: wind a bit of yarn onto the lower-down part, leaving a fair amount of yarn, then wind the yarn once *right under the whorl* before bringing the yarn up to the hook. When I have another arm’s-length of yarn ready to wind on, I unwind that bit right under the whorl, and continue to wind lower-down, repeating the process.

The downside is obvious: I need to unwind a few inches of yarn every. single. make. This gets tedious, and is why I love my super-wide-whorled spindle for plying.

The upside is that I’m not actually limited by the diameter of the whorl as I normally would be. As long as I leave a bit of space right under the whorl, I can put some tension on the yarn and wind on whatever I have left. It’s the difference between wanting to wind on a bit more and being *able* to wind on a bit more–at this point, I get distinctly annoyed with that extra little step in the plying process, but what they hey, I only have a few yards left, and knowing that gets me through to the end.

200 yards

And back to the beginning, about 200 yards and just over 3 ounces. When I get really very close to the end of whatever I’m working on, I end up just filling in that nice space under the whorl that I’d been taking such pains to maintain, because I’m almost done and won’t need that gap anymore, so I may as well skip the annoying extra step and just wind on wherever it’s convenient.

Like I said, if I’d had more yarn in the plying ball I could have kept going, but somewhere around the 160 yard mark, this stopped being fun. With a wider whorl it could have been fun for longer, but my arm might also have gotten tired.

Long blog post made short: You can cram a lot of damn yarn onto a spindle if you do it right.

*Full disclosure: I’m friends with Jim and Susan and have helped them out at fiber shows a few times. They’re neither paying nor asking me to shill for them.


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  1. It ate some donuts. « Fiberlog said, on September 20, 2011 at 8:00 pm

    […] spinners to cram as much wool onto their spindle as they possibly can. A while back, I posted about techniques to pack a lot of yarn onto a spindle, but I knew that 3 ounces on a one-ounce spindle was not truly maxing out the spindle. And every […]

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