First and Second Projects, Learning to Spin and Felt
Written by: Johanna L. Hartnagel
Before we start, some notes about wool and the fiber arts:
- Wool spins or is felted because it has little barbs which catch on one another. (Envision fishhooks catching).
- Wool, if heavily felted, will be waterproof.
- Wool is the only fiber that will keep you warm even when wet.
- Wool will not easily catch fire under normal conditions. This is why wool is preferred for things such a carpets and rugs in houses. Wool will smolder only at extremely hot temperatures (like 1000 degrees F). However, don’t try lighting things on fire at home or in school.
- Natural fibers (such as wool, cotton, and linen) are preferred for air and rail travel as they will not burn into your skin (unlike synthetics) if there is an accident involving fire.
- America, Argentina, and Canada are the only three countries in the world in which there are more cows than sheep.
- Who spins or felts? Fiber Arts are most rapidly growing among educated women who live in or outside large cities. It is especially growing quickly among women who hold masters and PhDs in technical fields (such as computer science and engineering) and women (and men!) who teach at colleges and universities.
- Men spin too. The world record for the finest handspun is held by a male in Australia.
- There probably is a Spinning Guild in your area. These are wonderful places to learn especially if you are a beginner. If you can’t find one in the yellow pages, try contacting Quilting Guilds or Living History Museums.
- Fiber art is a relatively cheap hobby. A good quality fleece can be bought for $2-6 per pound (it only takes 4 pounds washed to make a sweater), the equipment for felting and washing your fleece is probably already in your home (or can be bought at garage sales), a good quality drop spindle can be bought for as little as $15-30 dollars (or you can make your own for under $5), and a good quality wheel costs about $250-350. In the case of a good quality drop spindle and a wheel, these things literally will last you a lifetime (or two) if not abused.
- ALWAYS TRY A DEMO OF A WHEEL BEFORE YOU BUY IT! We all have preferences (I love my Lendrum one-pedal and wouldn’t sell it for the world, but my mother hates it because it spins too “fast”). Do research on your wheels before you buy, and try many different types. Also shop around if at all possible. I also suggest that you do not try to learn on or buy an “antique” wheel. Often wheels from the 1800s have pieces missing which a beginner can not recognize, or have been badly abused to the point where it is very difficult to spin on them.
- Spinning and felting are also hobbies in which you can spend a little more money for slightly more snazzy things once you have learned and enjoy the craft. High quality fleeces (such as Shetland or Merino) can cost upwards of $20 a pound, an expensive wheel can cost upwards of $600 dollars, and a custom made wheel can easily cost $2000.
Some basics on Washing and Carding:
- Use hot, steaming water for all washes and rinses. BE CAREFUL NOT TO BURN YOURSELF!!! Wear dishwashing gloves if necessary.
- First sort your fleece. Remove anything that has manure tags, or is matted (snarled). Then pick your fleece, removing any second cuts and hay.
- Next, I suggest pre-rinsing your fleece in hot water. This will float off any dirt that is lingering on your fleece, and save on soap. If the fleece is really dirty, try this twice. NEVER AGITATE YOUR FLEECE WHILE IT IS WET.THIS WILL FELT YOUR FLEECE. YOU SHOULD ALWAYS GENTLY DUNK THE FLEECE UNDER WATER, AND THEN LEAVE IT ALONE!!! GENTLY REMOVE IT FROM EACH WASH, NEVER PLAY WITH IT, RUB IT, SQUEEZE IT, OR SHAKE IT! YOU DON’T WANT FELT AT THIS POINT!!! Almost every fiber artist has unintentionally felted a fleece at some point, and you want to avoid it. Also, do not dump rinse or wash water down the drains if at all possible. The grease in the fleece can clog drains.
- Wash your fleece. I suggest using Dawn Dishwashing Soap as it removes the grease nicely (although any dish soap will work, Dawn is preferred). Make the water nice and sudsy. Dunk the fleece in, and let it set about 10 minutes.
- If you have pre-rinsed the fleece, then a second wash may not be necessary (unless the wash water was black).
- Rinse your fleece until the water is either mostly clear, or there aren’t any more soapsuds. If you are felting your fleece or spinning it, you will be washing it again soon anyways.
- Let it dry.
Some notes on Carding:
- There are several ways to card your fleece. You can have it sent to a factory to have it done (which is not very cost effective unless you plan on spinning tons of fleece), use a small hand or machine drum carder, use hand carders, or comb it with a large toothed comb (such as a metal dog brush).
- Drum carders are a good investment if you will be spinning or felting a huge amount. If buying a hand drum carder buy one with a chain (I recommend Fricke Carders). This makes it much easier to turn. Also, buy a carder for the type of fleece you will most often use (fine, medium or coarse). It is better to go one carder coarser than the fleece you are currently spinning if you have any doubts as to which to buy. A good hand drum carder will cost you under $500.
- Hand combs are the hardest to use for beginners. They will cost you money (probably $20-50), and you will have to spend hours practicing to get nice little rolls of carded wool. I really don’t like them personally, and I’ve found they are hard for beginners to use, but some spinners swear by them.
- A metal wire dog comb is the cheapest way to card your fleece. It will cost you under $5, and turn out a small but nice portion of wool. I recommend a dog comb for all beginners. Plus, like a drop spindle, you can carry it in a bag. And if you quit spinning and have a dog or cat, they have a new brush.
- In carding, you are aligning the fibers parallel, so that they those little barbs can catch easily. If you are combing the wool, simply lay it out on a flat surface (a lock at a time) and brush down the locks. If you are drum carding, feed it in a small lock at a time while turning the carder.
Some basics on Spinning:
You can spin wool that is washed or is still “in the grease” (unwashed). It is easier for beginners to spin wool that is washed.
When spinning, don’t be upset if your yarn is knarly or twisted. If your yarn looked spun by machine, nobody would believe you spun it.
- First, set up your drop spindle or spinning wheel with a “lead” (an already spun piece of yarn that you can attach your spinning to). Preferably this is some handspun that you’ve done, which you can “spin” on your lap.
- Always spin the wheel or the drop spindle clockwise. Place your non-dominant hand closest to the wheel or spindle on the fleece, and your dominant further back and closer to you. Your dominant hand will “draw out” the wool, while your non-dominant holds the twist from escaping up the un-spun fiber. Overlap the unspun and spun fiber (on your wheel or drop spindle) about 4-5 inches, and hold it securely with your non-dominant hand. Turn the wheel clockwise, and it will naturally twist. Draw the wool out, and slowly move your hands toward your body (or upward in the case of a drop spindle.) Add more wool as you need it. (Stopping to do this in the beginning will be necessary.)
- If working on the drop spindle, after creating a stretch of yarn that is so long that it no longer feels comfortable, wind it onto the spindle. In the case of a wheel, allow the wheel to slowly take it up by easing up on your tension.
- When you are first starting, four things will probably happen. Firstly, the twist will escape beyond your hands. Secondly (in the case of a wheel) the spinning will either seem to refuse to be taken up by the wheel, or it will seem like the wheel is trying to eat your yarn and your hands alive. Thirdly (in the case of a wheel) it will seem impossible to keep the wheel turning AND focus on your hands. Fourthly, your yarn will break. A lot. This happens to all of us. My yarn still breaks on a regular basis, and it happens to everyone! Relax and remember that practice is what makes a good spinner. No one sits down at a wheel or takes up a drop spindle for the first time and can spin perfectly.
- Once you have filled your spindle or bobbin, unwind the thread and make a skein by wrapping it around your hand and your elbow (like you would a rope or cord). Tie this skein at intervals with acrylic yarn.
- You have to set the twist on your yarn, or it will come unraveled. The best way to do this is to thoroughly soak the skein in hot water (remember: DO NOT AGITATE) and hang the skein through the top of a plastic hanger from your showerhead to dry. Setting the twist is accomplished by hanging something heavy from the bottom of skein while drying. In the past, I’ve found placing 20 metal washers on a piece of acrylic yarn and tying it on the bottom works well. If you don’t have washers, take some change in sandwich bag and tie this around the bottom. You want the weight to pull down on the skein (pulling it taut) but you don’t want to hang an anvil from it and break your threads either.
- You’re done spinning and you have your first skein!
Some notes on Hand Felting flat pieces:
Felting is probably the oldest form of fiber art.
Felt will not ravel.
Felt can be made waterproof if heavily felted.
You can felt in the washing machine using a different technique.
- Take your carded wool and lay it out on a flat surface in a shallow pan, preferably on one with some type of small ridges on the bottom. (Or place something with small bumps of ridges on it on the bottom, like a piece of cabinet plastic liner that’s non-skid).
- Layer your wool in three layers. Each layer should be relatively thick; you should see no light or the pan through it. The first layer should be horizontal to the surface of the table, the second vertical, and the third horizontal again. This is called “cross-hatching”, and ensures that the fibers are correctly aligned so those barbs can grab, and also gives you better coverage.
- Dump hot steaming soapy water (Ivory Flakes Detergent works best) on top of the wool, squishing it down so that it is absorbed. You don’t want too much water; just make sure the wool is thoroughly wet. BE CAREFUL NOT TO BURN YOURSELF!!! Wear dishwashing gloves if necessary.
- Agitate the wool by rubbing it with your fingers. Add hot water as necessary, you want to keep your piece extremely hot. The wool will begin to felt. You know it’s felting when you pull up on a piece in the middle of it and it doesn’t pull apart. This can take ten minutes to an hour depending upon the softness of your fleece and the size of the piece. Flip the piece and continue on the other side.
- Once you can’t pull it apart, you want to harden it on a washboard. Rub it hard on the washboard, it will “pull up” and “harden” (basically it will get thicker and toughen).
- Rinse your piece. You’ve felted!
I highly recommend anything from Interweave Press for beginners. They are simple, straightforward and lack much of the theory that more hard-core books have. They also have great step-by-step pictures that explain what I can’t in this worksheet. They are paperback, and worth the investment (under $30 each).
- Hands on Spinning, Lee Raven, Interweave Press.
- Hands on Weaving, Interweave Press.
Occasionally, you can find books on spinning in large used bookstores.