Working with Handdyed Fiber Part 5: Fractal Spinning

Posted in handspun, spinning by tchemgrrl on September 6, 2013

A number of common questions from both new and experienced spinners involves the use of those pretty, colorful braids of fiber that indie dyers sell. What do we do with them? How do we prevent them from turning to mud? How can I make it look the way it looks in my head?

Over the next few weeks I’m going to work on answering some of those questions. Taken together, they should add up to a handy little workshop on working with a particular fiber.

Previous posts:

Part 1: Deciding on some fiber
Part 2: Color
Part 3: Splitting and Breaking
Part 4: Lazy Rolags
Fractal spinning

Precise definitions vary, but the primary technique in fractal spinning involves spinning a multi-ply yarn where one or more plies have shorter color repeats than one or more of the other. For example, in a two-ply yarn, the first ply is spun from the full thickness of the fiber, and the second is spun from the fiber split into quarters. Within every “stripe” formed by the first ply, there will be four “stripes” formed by the second.

The overall effect tends to mute the original fiber, but still maintains a more cohesive and unified look than spinning completely at random. It gives may colorways a somewhat “shimmery” look, as every color combination within the fiber ends up happening somewhere in the final yarn. Personally, I also find the preparation more straightforward than the stricter requirements for getting the component singles to line up perfectly. When I just feel like spinning without a lot of forethought, this is the technique I most often turn to. Break the fiber into two or three equal pieces, split one or more of those pieces into two or more strips, spin each piece separately, and ply.

Downsides: This technique maximizes the chances of all colors interacting with each other; if there is a combination guaranteed to turn to mud, you will probably see it somewhere in the yarn. If there’s a mix you absolutely HATE, this is probably not the technique for that fiber. Personally I’m not much of a fan of making a fractal yarn from a saturated non-tonal yarn. I think in more washed-out colors, the muting effect works, and I think that in muted or bright tonals, it works, but I wouldn’t use it on a bright rainbow-dyed fiber.

For more information, refer to the Summer 2007 issue of Spin Off, which has an excellent article on this technique, including many examples.

Apple Baktus

We already looked at this project, but I wanted to point out that it was fractal-spun. One ply was composed of top split into two pieces, the other ply was composed of top split into fairly thin pieces, because I wanted fairly thin stripes, which I got. This particular project was a good way for me to play with the color wheel, and see just what army green and pink look like at a distance when plied together. (Purple-gray! I would not have guessed that.)

Charlotte's Hoodie

The child’s sweater is a 3-ply fractal spun from a vibrant pink-orange yarn. One ply was not split at all, the second ply involved top split into 1/3rds, the third ply used top split into fairly thin pieces. The colors are considerably more subtle than in the tonal fiber. When worn it looks pretty darn pink, the striping can only really be seen up close.

Working with Handdyed fibers part 4: Lazy Rolags

Posted in handspun, spinning by tchemgrrl on September 4, 2013

A number of common questions from both new and experienced spinners involves the use of those pretty, colorful braids of fiber that indie dyers sell. What do we do with them? How do we prevent them from turning to mud? How can I make it look the way it looks in my head?

Over the next few weeks I’m going to work on answering some of those questions. Taken together, they should add up to a handy little workshop on working with a particular fiber.

Previous posts:

Part 1: Deciding on some fiber
Part 2: Color
Part 3: Splitting and Breaking
“Lazy rolags”

Traditional rolags are made of carded fiber rolled into a tube and spun perpendicular to the direction in which the fibers lay. Lazy rolags look similar and are spun the same way, but are made from pieces of commercial top, broken into staple-length chunks and rolled across the grain of the top. This arrangement makes it easier to spin an airy woolen yarn from commercial top. It’s a particularly nice technique for short or slippery fibers.

Downsides: If you want a smooth dense yarn, this may not be the technique for you; we are seriously disordering the nicely aligned top!

Here’s a box full of lazy rolags for visual reference:
pretty fake rolags

And here’s the incredibly squishy, woolenish yarn that resulted:
big skein

For this yarn, I sorted the rolags by color, and was able to control the overall colorway differently than I could have purely by spinning the fiber as it came to me. In this case, I made the stripes longer than they would have been normally; the box of fiber represents several repeats of the colorway and I spun each color separately, thus, the rate of color change was *slower* than it would have been if I had just spun the top in a more usual way. (If I had instead split the top, the color change would have been *faster*. Fun trick!) The end result was very puffy and light, with very good yardage for the weight, and slowly shifting from purple to orange and back again, as you can see here:


Working With Handdyed Fibers, Part 2: Color

Posted in handspun, spinning by tchemgrrl on August 29, 2013

A number of common questions from both new and experienced spinners involves the use of those pretty, colorful braids of fiber that indie dyers sell. What do we do with them? How do we prevent them from turning to mud? How can I make it look the way it looks in my head?

Over the next few weeks I’m going to work on answering some of those questions. Taken together, they should add up to a handy little workshop on working with a particular fiber.

Previous posts:

Part 1: Deciding on some fiber

Okay. Go pick a theoretical fiber from the stash or from a fiber seller whose stuff you like. We’re going to talk about how to get the colors you want out of the fibers you have.

Let’s start with the color wheel.

color wheel
This terrible, made-in-5-minutes-in-Powerpoint color wheel. Shhh. You know what color wheels look like, this is just a quick reminder.

If your goal is a yarn that closely reflects the colors you see in the fiber, then the technique you choose to spin your fiber will depend on not only the properties of the fiber, but of the colors in it.

In general, colorways that contain colors close to each other on the color wheel (or tints, tones, or shades as in in the image above) are likely to blend with each other in a way that looks much like the original fiber. In other words, a colorway of orange, red-orange, and burgundy such as in the fiber below will likely read as a similar reddish colorway as fiber and as a finished object, regardless of the care taken in lining up or mixing the colors. If you don’t want to spend a lot of time managing fiber, sticking with these “color family” colorways is a good way to do avoid surprises (pleasant or unpleasant).

The fiber, yarn, final project in a tonal yarn where the colors were intentionally mixed are seen below. The overall impression of reddish fiber/yarn/scarf is maintained throughout in spite of the mixing, and this is largely due to the fact that the individual colors are neighbors or near-neighbors on the color wheel.

silk roving
red silk
mango silk scarf

On the other hand, a colorway consisting of green, golden yellow, and pink-purple may look very striking in the large color blocks in dyed top form, but if spun up at random, the colorway may look duller in the final project. Think, for example, of the pixels on a computer screen or dots in newsprint, where the tiny bright dots of yellow, cyan, magenta, and black form every shade from a distance. You may wish for a more subtle effect than the bright colors in the skein, in which case mixing would be desirable. However, if you want those sections of color to remain distinct, you will need to make spinning choices that will lead to minimal color mixing in any strand of the final yarn (I’ll talk more about these in an upcoming post.)

The example below shows a non-tonal colorway in which the colors were spun to minimize mixing. Note that the handspun yarn and the final project contain similar very bright and distinct blocks of color which were preserved from the original fiber.

bright seasilk
surfing safari scarf

Both of the previous examples are pretty much cases of the fiber looking like the final project. Compare that to this yarn:

apple silk 3

Unfortunately I don’t have a picture of the original fiber, but you can see from the closeup that it contained pink, apple green, golden yellow, and a bit of grayish-green. The fibers, like the red ones, were spun in a way that allowed for a lot of mixing. The effect, however, is quite different.

Apple Baktus

Up close, the blend of individual green, yellow, and pink plies is visible, but the mixtures often read as gray, purple, or greenish-brown from a distance. I am not usually a super-pink fan so I chose to do this to tone the yarn down a bit. The fiber was predominantly pink; the scarf is much less so, but it’s still pleasantly spring-like in color and has a different impression from up close vs. a distance. (I like to think of that as a little gift to knitters and spinners I may encounter.)

The point I wanted to make in this section is that the effect of contrasting colorways mixed together does not need to be unpleasant and “muddy” (I’ll talk more about how to avoid an overall muddiness in a future entry). Part of the fun of working with dyed fibers lies in finding out what the final result will look like! It’s a useful exercise to take some notes prior to spinning and then actually turn your yarns into projects, so that you can determine which of these effects to use for a particular project.

Working With Handdyed Fibers, Part 1

Posted in handspun, spinning by tchemgrrl on August 26, 2013

Most of my craft-time lately has been taken up with teaching a beginner’s spinning class and a few one-on-one classes. I had a great time, and hopefully the new spinners did too! I always have grand plans of taking pictures, but if you’ve seen me do educating in person you know that I get a little, um, focused, and that stepping back to take some casual pictures is just not possible. that was the past month.

Right now, I’m working on a project that I hope to publish, so I have very little that I can show. But I’m excited about it, and my plans are working, so that’s always good.

In the mean time, I thought I’d put together a few posts on handling hand-dyed fibers. A number of common questions from both new and experienced spinners involves the use of those pretty, colorful braids of fiber that indie dyers sell. What do we do with them? How do we prevent them from turning to mud? How can I make it look the way it looks in my head?
Over the next few weeks I’m going to work on answering some of those questions. Taken together, they should add up to a handy little workshop on working with a particular fiber.

Starting point: What do you have?

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.

In-person starting points: Confirm that the fiber looks okay, not too compacted, not sticky to the touch. Merino top is particularly notorious for getting felted in inexperienced (or having-a-bad-day) hands, and the airiness of a carded roving sometimes gets squished into oblivion by careless dyeing. Check that the dye goes all the way through the chunk of fiber.

Spinning is a bit different than knitting and spinning in that you have a bit more control over the final product from this point–the same braid could be a delicate lacy shawl, hard-wearing socks, or a smooshy hat depending on how it’s spun. While you’re checking out the fiber, think about the questions below. They don’t all need an answer immediately, but looking over them may help you to narrow down your options. If you can’t decide between two things that both sound intriguing, don’t be afraid to sample and swatch a few ideas first!

Color: What kind of colorway is it? Is it tonal, or are there hues from every corner of the color wheel? Would you like to tone the colorway down somewhat, or do you want the final project to look exactly like the fiber? Are the blocks of color very short or very long?

color wheel
A 5-minutes-in-Powerpoint color wheel, which I will be referring back to later.

The final project: What kind of project do you want to use it for? Would long stretches of color or shorter ones be more appealing? Do you have enough fiber to complete your planned project or would plying with another fiber help you to stretch what is available?

Yarn structure: Would singles or plied yarn be more appropriate to the color and project? Which would be better in terms of wear, etc.? Would a fluffy, airy yarn or a firmly twisted, hard-wearing yarn be better?

Personal Preference: Do you want to pay a lot of attention to the yarn as you spin and/or ply it by weighing, measuring, swatching, etc, or do you just want to go with the flow? Do you mind spending a few minutes prepping fiber? Will you be sitting with your wheel in one place so that you can lay out some pre-planned fiber and grab pieces easily, or will you be moving around with your spinning a lot, making such organization difficult?

In upcoming posts I’ll be talking about some of these options in more detail.


Posted in handspun, spinning by tchemgrrl on March 18, 2013

So this was a bit of a funny yarn.

I got this gradient-dyed fiber from my local knitting shop a while back when I was there to give a spinning demo. (It’s from Wild Hare Fiber, whose fiber I’ve really enjoyed in the past.) Just grabbed it 5 minutes before showtime, and sat working on it for most of the afternoon while answering questions and demonstrating things. By necessity, I spun it in my most automatic possible way for a wheel, with very little thought as to its final application–I split the fiber into 3 equal pieces, spun it at a thickness to make a 3 ply sport-or-so weight, and plied it.

I plied the yarn on the hookless bottom whorl spindle I got in a recent class of Abby Franquemont, because I wanted to get some good practice with her amazing flying trapeze of a plying technique. I found that flicking the spindle shaft between my palms with the force required to make everything happen bruised my hands a little, particularly as the spindle filled up, but with experience (and callouses), I could see using it a lot. Getting twist to move at great speed without tangles is definitely a rush. And just look at how crammed that spindle is!



As I was working on the singles, I got to thinking about what I could do with it. 4 ounces isn’t enough for a large project, but the slow gradient from white to black and back to white was the sort of thing that seemed to want a larger-scale canvas. I thought about the handspun color shifts in my Huntington Castle pullover, and had the thought that doing colorwork using this yarn on a white background would be really interesting. The starting and ending color was white, so the colors would just sort of slowly appear and disappear, a knitted Brigadoon.

Cool idea! I got excited about it, started deciding on a white fiber that would work well as the main color.


The part of this I didn’t think through was that there was white fiber and there was dyed-black fiber, and that when they got washed the dyed-black fiber just might affect that white fiber. The final yarn is perfectly nice, but it doesn’t start with the white color, which throws off the plans. So now I don’t know what to do with it.



A sweater for a baby Lion

Posted in FO, handspun, made with handspun, spinning by tchemgrrl on March 14, 2013

Some very dear friends of ours are having a baby soon. When I was laid up with my ankle without any knitting, I decided that a baby sweater for them was just the thing to do.

Our friends are vegan and eminently craftworthy, so I used my first handspun cotton yarn, a 3×2 cabled DK-to-worsted weight yarn.

cotton postwash

I had two skeins of that size, about 170 yards all told. Just enough for a sweet little spring baby cardigan.

I used my old baby sweater standby of Paxton, making almost no changes to it except to space out the increases slightly differently. I even kept the buttonholes. A day and a half of sedentary living and Downton Abbey watching had it complete. On the weekend, when I was doing well enough to get upstairs to the button stash easily, I finished it off. Having so little uninterrupted knitting time, I forget sometimes how fast things can go when you work on them for more than 5 minutes at a go.

Sweater for Lion

It being my first cotton handspun, the fabric is a bit more rustic and knobbly than usual, but it’s soft and washable and is slightly variegated due to my switching between colors of the naturally-colored cotton on several of the plies, which will help hide baby dribbles. And having knitted it up, I’m now pretty confident that it will wear well. (Well enough for the 5 minutes that newborn clothes are worn, at least.)

I hope that baby and mamas get some good use out of it!

Aqualime Cowl

Posted in FO, handspun, knitting, made with handspun, spinning by tchemgrrl on February 22, 2013

I spun up this yarn last fall:

aqualime batt

I did some new-to-me things with the color so that one ply of the two-ply yarn would shift slowly from blue to lime, while the other ply would be more random. I really wanted to see how it would come out! (Plus, I’m running a spinning class soon for which this would be a good sample.) So I knit up a quick little cowl, and finally I can see what it did!


Pattern made up on the fly, just a razorshell pattern with a 10-stitch-wide repeat, knit over 150 stitches. I had less than a yard of yarn left at the end, so I really used every bit of the skein.

The center section is a little more green in person, more of a true halfway point between the two colors. It does have the overall effect I was hoping for, that of an obvious unidirectional trend while still maintaining some visual interest. I’d highly recommend the technique as being a way of controlling the colors in a spun yarn while still leaving some room for spontaneity.

If I were to do it again, I’d probably use fibers that weren’t quite so high-contrast to make the shift more subtle. I’d also put more of an effort into getting some of the intermediate batt layers that went into the slowly-shifting ply to have a better mixture of lime and green so that the transition between the two was slower.

Learning to Unlearn

Posted in spinning, toddler by tchemgrrl on January 29, 2013

There’s this concept in educational psychology that sometimes an apparent backsliding of abilities is actually linked to having taken a big step forward in understanding the conceptual framework behind the thing you’ve been doing. (There’s even a word for it, which I wish I could fish out of my head.)

Over the weekend, Toddler apparently figured out a general rule of plurals–that you can add an S to the word and then it means more than one. (I even tried the Wug Test, which he passed after a few minutes of thinking about it.)

If English wasn’t so darn complicated, he’d be done with plurals.

The only reason I noticed this developmental leap is that last night, while brushing his teeth, he looked in the mirror and pointed into his mouth. “One, two, three, foh tooth-es. Five tooths. Teeth-es. Mommy, five tooth-es?”

My brain just about imploded with developmental geekdom.

The most interesting thing, to me, was that he tried not only “tooths” but “teeths”. Which means that he already knows the correct plural of “tooth”. A week ago, he would have used the word “teeth” grammatically. This week, teeth-es. A mistake, but a mistake that lays out the workings in his head really clearly, and shows that he just learned a rule that will apply to about 95% of the nouns he’ll use. Before, he had separately memorized tooth/teeth and cup/cups and dog/dogs and deer/deer and box/boxes and spoon/spoons and all of the other nouns he knows. Knowing that there’s one rule and a few exceptions is easier to remember in the long run, but now he’s got to learn the exceptions all over again.


This being, in theory, a fiber-arts blog, I’m thinking about the ways this hooks into things I’ve seen from folks learning to spin. I think the important takeaway is this: Our brains love rules, but rules often fail us in unexpected ways.

For example: a person learns one way of putting twist into fiber to make yarn and posts a video that only demonstrates that way of doing it. Beginning spinners get that far, try it, get the idea, but then come up against various limitations of that technique (a few examples: denseness of final yarn, inability to spin thinner, being comparatively slow and unwieldy, and the fact that the technique only works for top or batts, not any carded preps like roving or rolags that can’t be stripped in the same way.)

In order to get over those obstacles, the beginning spinner needs to develop the ability to draft while there’s already twist coming at them, which is a hugely more flexible technique. Getting the hang of dealing with active twist is related to figuring out a whole bunch of spinning things–it’s the equivalent of figuring out that most plurals consist of the base word with an “s” on the end. But the first attempts, like “teeth-es”, are probably going to be more wobbly than keeping drafting and twist insertion as totally separate entities.

Grownups don’t get to spend as much time in the “beginner’s mind”, and often have a really hard time trusting in the fact that the short-term setback in quality will lead to a longer-term gain in overall ability.

Another example: The last time I remember hitting on a fiber-related stumbling block like this was when I got my charkha and started spinning cotton. The leap to one-handed double-drafting was pretty ugly, but it meant that I could spin cotton WAY faster, and led to being able to draft wool faster on a flyer wheel, in spite of the fact that I still can’t reliably do one-handed double-drafting with wool on the flyer wheel. But my brain and hands somehow translated SOMETHING from one to the other.

Anything that you’re unlearning in your life now?

2012 in Review (Spinning)

Posted in handspun, spinning by tchemgrrl on January 24, 2013

Same idea as the knitting review, but for spinning. Here’s what I’ve finished spinning in the past year, and what I notice when looking at it in aggregate.

-Aqua/Lime Batt, 2 ounces, 150 yards:

aqualime batt

-Spot Hollow Jacob, 8 ounces, 300 yards:


-Trillium, 4 ounces, 415 yards:


-Lobba, 4 ounces, 225 yards:

TdF day 4

-Silk singles, 225 yards, 2 ounces:


-Rainbow yarn, 300 yards, 4 ounces, and various plied scraps, of 45, 40, 180, 50 yards respectively (and another 100 yards not shown):

Final TdF Tally

-BFL, about 400 final yards out of a sweater-sized lot:

Black and Bluefaced closeup

-Tartan, 4 ounces, 210 yards:

tartan yarn

-Silver Batt, 4 ounces, 270 yards:


-Yak/merino, 3 ounces, 195 yards:


-Superwash wool, 3.8 ounces, 315 yards (no completed picture yet):


And some shop samples that haven’t been washed or photographed. And a bunch of samples from Abby Franquemont’s class in November (which I should talk about here because it was wonderful.)

Hot diggity. Apparently I spun about more completed yardage than I knit. That may explain the relatively low knitting output. A few of these things went into knitted projects or were given as gifts, but most of them are waiting for me in the stash. I thought the fiber box was looking a little thin, and now I know why.

Here’s where my spinning goals and knitting goals may interface a little funny. I had mentioned in the last entry that I’d like to knit a few larger-scale projects, but the handspun I’m the most excited about is the colorful, smaller-scale skeins. I did a lot of experimentation with color and how to control handdyed fibers this year, and I want to know how all those things came out before I go spouting off too much about good ways of doing these things. And I have a few more of those experiments to go before I’ll REALLY be ready to write or teach or communicate about them.

I did a lot of what I’d think of as “comfort zone spinning” this year; same as the knitting. 2 and 3 ply sport to worsted weight stuff that is fun to spin while not adding much to my repertoire. I did enjoy the experimentations with color that I did, but I mostly kept the spinning to stuff I’m pretty used to. I have a singles-heavy project that I just started working on that should expand my horizons a bit. I’m okay with what I’ve been making, though, so my main goal may be to knit up more of my handspun and learn more about it from that end. I’m okay with having a knitting-heavy year.

What Happened?

Posted in Black Sheep Handspinners Guild, handspun, knitting, made with handspun, spinning by tchemgrrl on January 4, 2013

I blinked and suddenly hadn’t posted in 2 months. Partly working on holiday-related projects, partly the spate of birthdays and Hannukahs and Hogswatches and Festivuses, partly a family-wide cold that lasted approximately one geologic age.

(A conversation with the toddler’s pediatrician 3 weeks in, a point at which Theo got mildly wheezy:)

Me: “We all have that cold that lasts forever right now.”
Her: “Ugh, everyone has it. Nobody can kick it in less than a month. What’s up with that anyways?”
Me: “When the medical professional is talking like that, you know it’s a special virus.”)

Now that gifts have been given and wellness is returning, I may actually be able to post regularly, again. In the mean time, enjoy the gift of a 37.5 pound vegetable that volunteered in a friend’s garden, enjoying a sweater that a 35 pound toddler refuses to wear:

squash sweater

And enjoy the gift of shameless promotion.

Roc Day, our guild’s annual fiber festival, is happening next Saturday, Jan. 12th. Info here. I’m in charge of the committee this year, which means that if you go and see a wool-ensconced blur, it’ll probably be me running around to make sure everything’s running smoothly and everyone is happy and verifying that the vendors are not sharpening their knitting needles in preparation of a turf war. You should come! Just don’t take sides in the turf war.