Fiberlog

How do I get started with spinning?

Posted in spinning by tchemgrrl on August 16, 2012

I see this question a lot (the impetus for this entry was a question to my spinning guild’s email). Lots of other spinners have answered this question, but I thought I’d make my own personal stab at it, too.

(First, some starting assumptions: I am assuming that a typical aspiring spinner is a person of modest-to-moderate means, without any unique physical problems, without immediate access to fiber animals, but with a general curiosity about the spinning process. If you have questions about a situation that doesn’t fit that profile, please leave a note in the comments and I’ll try to help.)

The short version, aka, “just tell me what to buy already”.

Okay, you’ve pressed me into action.

-A 1-2 ounce top whorl spindle.
-A pound of fiber in varying breeds and compositions, in 2-8 ounce units. Make at least one an undyed medium wool if you can, and start with that.
-A lesson. Or at least a good-faith Google search for “handspinning [zipcode]”, “weaving guild [zipcode]” and “fiber shop [zipcode]” before getting Start Spinning or Respect The Spindle.

Where to buy stuff:

Go looking for local sources, first of all. “Local” for something as specialized as a spinning shop is not the same as “local” for, say, groceries or gasoline. I’m fortunate to have two small spinning shops within 30 minutes’ drive, but the nearest major shop to me is probably the Mannings or WEBS depending on traffic (4.5 hours for each). Obviously I wouldn’t go that far just to make a casual day of it, but if I was about to make the couple-hundred-dollar purchase of a wheel, you can bet that I’d be down there trying a bunch of things, seeing how I felt about them. When I learned to spin, I was living in Madison WI, 20 minutes away from Susan’s Fiber Shop, and I still kick myself over the fact that I only went once (that once after I bought my first wheel. After never having touched a wheel before. It turned out okay for me, but oh, I could’ve made an expensive mistake.)

But brick-and-mortar stores aren’t the only options. We’re coming up on fiber festival season, and within 3 hours of me I know of at least 3 or 4 places to look at a whole bunch of fiber and tools at once. Even a modest fiber fair is often larger than some of these large spinning shops, and it’s a great opportunity to see what’s available in your region.

If you’re in a rush, or if you have a less expensive purchase in mind, or if you really don’t have any nearby fiber people, there are online options as well. I usually warn people away from Etsy because it’s a very low barrier to entry; it’s hard to know, as a new spinner, if the person whose fiber you’re looking at has a good reputation in the spinning world. I’ve done business with The Spinning Loft, The Fold, Susan’s Fiber Shop, and Spunky Eclectic, and have heard nothing but good things about all of them. Those are the big guys with the full page ads in Spin Off who you’ll see mentioned over and over again on the spinning boards.

If you’re in Central New York, my local sources are Susan’s Spinning Bunny* in Danby (her husband Jim is a spinner and woodworker and his spindles are some of my favorites, and a good 75% of what I spin is Susan’s hand-dyed fibers), and Spun Right Round in Cortland (Renee is really nice, knowledgeable, and her shop is quite new, so go and keep her business going, please!) (Update 2/27: I’ve now spun some of Renee’s fiber and can really truly recommend her. She does great stuff.)

Tools:

I’ll list out the main options from least to most expensive, since price is usually a big issue for people new to a craft.

Most beginning spinners choose to use a spindle to spin, because of its mechanical simplicity and more easily accessible price point. That doesn’t mean it’s purely a stepping-stone tool, but it’s a reasonable starting place for many. If you do research you’ll hear a lot of stuff about top vs. bottom whorl, center vs. rim weighted, etc. Don’t worry about that stuff, for now, for the most part. You may have a preference later but it’s pretty hard to tell what that is without a little spinning practice. They’ll all make yarn.

You can make a spindle with a wooden toy wheel, a dowel, and (maybe) a cup hook, all of which can be found at big-box craft places for just a few dollars. The only downside of that process is that if there’s a problem with your setup, it may be hard to know if it’s the spinner or the tool. But! It’s damn near free to learn from your mistakes. Grab one of the larger toy wheels if you see one–the 2-inch diameter ones that are most common are a little lightweight for a beginner. It ought to look a little like this when it’s done:

silk spinning

Ready-made spindles from reputable fiber shops will range from ~$25-50 dollars for a decent-quality plain spindle. If you’re spending more than that, you’re paying for the pretty, not the function. If you’re paying less than that, you’re probably buying a toy wheel spindle as described above, and I haven’t been thrilled with the quality of the toy wheel spindles that I’ve seen compared to what a non-mechanically-inclined person could make. Ask the shop owner what they recommend for a newbie, or look for one in the 1-2 ounce or 25-50 gram range. If there’s one that your hand goes right to, get that one, even if it doesn’t quite fit into the recommendations. You’ll be spending a lot of time with it, may as well use something that pleases you.

Some people want to go right to a wheel, and that’s fine too. There’s such a huge range of options that that’s an entire other entry. Fortunately, that blog entry has already been written, by someone else. Abby Franquemont’s article on choosing a first wheel is widely cited and with good reason. Prices on most commonly-encountered functional wheels will range from ~200 (used wheel that might need a little elbow grease) to ~1200 (top-of-the-line, brand-new, hand-crafted wheel).

Fiber:

Buy at least 4 ounces of your first fiber, and buy 8 ounces to 1 pound of fiber with the expectation of it being a learning experience. Expect to go through somewhere between 4-16 ounces before spinning starts to make sense to your hands.

While I want a new spinner to make the assumption that the first pound will be crap, I do NOT want you to go and buy the cheapest fiber you can find simply because “it will go to waste anyway”. Crummy fiber can make you think spinning is harder than it actually is. Don’t make it hard on yourself! Find one of those sources I mentioned upthread, have a friendly chat, ask questions. They’ll set you in the right direction if they’re worth their salt.

Everyone has their favorite fiber. There are people who have learned with every type of fiber out there, even dryer lint (though dryer lint is… not ideal.). In other words, if you come across something that you absolutely CRAVE, then go for that, because you’ll be so happy playing with it that you won’t care if you make a lumpy mess. That being said, though, I’d also say that an undyed medium wool roving or top is the likeliest to be a gentle lead-in to the world of spinning. Some common breeds you might see that this would apply to are Blue Faced Leicester, Corriedale, Shetland, and Falkland. There is some stuff out there labeled as “Colonial Wool”, “Wool pool”, or just plain old “Wool”, and that stuff is almost always fine as well. I say undyed because the dyeing process can sometimes do odd things to fiber. Again, if you are allergic to a lack of color, find a reputable dealer and get him or her to put the right thing into your hands.

I also said “roving or top” up there. What are those? They are two different types of commercial preparations–in both cases, the fiber will look like a wrist-thick rope of wool, and you shouldn’t NEED to do ANY OTHER PREP to it before hooking a spindle or leader into it. There are differences between roving and top, but this is another area that’s a whole other blog entry. Suffice to say that either is fine to learn on, and you might like one or the other better once you’ve had some practice.

Some new folks find raw fiber inviting and want to learn how to do fiber processing. Like making your own spindle, there are some really cool aspects of doing this, but my only warning would be that if you are getting frustrated, to try a commercial prep to figure out if it’s the spinning or the fiber that is a problem.

Learning:

Those local spinning opportunities I mentioned at the top? They probably have someone that gives lessons. Take advantage. This is another “do not do as I have done” situation; I bought a book and struggled on my own for a good long time, when I was literally living in the middle of a huge fiber community full of great resources. Stupid, stupid.

There are tons of online sources; I’m pretty active on the spinning groups on Ravelry, for example (as a soon-to-be-finished blog entry will attest). The best recommendation I have is to play for just a few minutes every day. It’s more of a muscle-memory skill, and for most people, it will be frustrating and hard and make no sense for a week to a month of daily practice, and then the light bulb will come on.

*Disclosure of Potential Conflict of Interest: I help Susan out at occasional fiber festivals. But anyone who knows me knows that my opinions are my own, and I’m not getting paid to do this. (I’m actually a terrible salesperson, I’m not sure why Susan keeps me around.)

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5 Responses

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  1. Michelle said, on August 17, 2012 at 10:00 am

    Thanks for all the work in producing this Nice write-up! I would also suggest going to youtube.com and search for …spinning wool… to start a list of various spinning videos and other spinning related topics. Finally, I would warn the novice that ‘spinning is addictive’…

  2. tchemgrrl said, on August 17, 2012 at 11:06 am

    That’s a good point; I do actually have an “Educational Resources” post in progress, though it’s gonna take a while to get through. I tend to be… comprehensive, as you can see. 🙂

  3. Susan Sarabasha said, on August 17, 2012 at 12:51 pm

    Ah, well I guess I can’t LIKE your blog without a wordpress acount.
    Susan keeps you around because you are fantastic. You can teach spinning to just about anyone. Your fiber knowledge is excellent. You refer folks to me when needed. You see what needs to be done and do it. Plus I like you.

  4. Of Limited Interest « Fiberlog said, on October 4, 2012 at 3:19 pm

    […] •An entry I wrote on getting started spinning. I don’t talk too much about wheels except to link Abby’s entry, but if you’ve never spun on a wheel, you might also be wondering what fiber to start with or where to shop for supplies. That might help. […]

  5. […] The starting point in working with a hand-dyed fiber is going to be very similar to how one would look at a solid color fiber. If you are not an experienced spinner, are not willing to spend money on a fiber mistake, and are not able to see fiber in person, I’d STRONGLY recommend starting with fiber from a known good dealer and not the first person whose results pop up on Etsy (whoever that is today). There are many recommendations on threads in Ravelry and in my How to get started with spinning post. […]


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