Spinning Yarn

This is not a how to. This is a comparison post.

I’ve spend the last month or so spinning for a rather massive project. Also writing the paper to go with it. I’ve been busy, just not updating the blog to keep you lovely folks in the loop. The finished project is for a competition so I’m not posting all the details on that here (yet), but here is one of the pieces of it.

For most of us handspun yarn is handspun yarn and needs no further documentation. “I spun this” is impressive enough. AND IT SHOULD BE. I’m just the batshit Lady of the Tangleweb region of the Land of Extra and have no idea how to tell the scope creep imp to buzz off. Therefore I decided to see if I could recreate the most identical to extant yarn possible, using only tools available to an iron age textile artist.

Originally I was just going to spin with my extant spindle whorl that was dug out of the ground in the Ukraine and dated to roughly 850-900CE. That’s within 50 years of when I say my persona is, and from a region we know Saxon England had contact with at that time by virtue of both being the hot spots to go a Viking. So it’s reasonable to assume my little spindle whorl is comparable to those Aethelflied would have had access to. If not, it’s still an extant whorl, not a reproduction.

Then I thought, if I’m using the extant whorl I need to use an appropriate breed of sheep. And if I’m doing that then I should make sure I get it raw so I can process it correctly. So I bought an Icelandic fleece, rinsed it in a stream, picked the VM out, and proceeded to separate the top from under coats using wool combs.

NOW  I can start spinning.

First I combed the top coat so I could spin them in a worsted style. Namely all the fibers going the same direction. This is consistent with records of later period English woolens and textiles from finds in Greenland and Birka to the same era I’m attempting to recreate. On the spindle spinning like this produced a very fine, very smooth, very hard, yarn that I think will stand up just fine to being warp threads.


On the wheel… well not so much. I couldn’t generate enough twist on the wheel to hold the top coat yarn together. Trying to set the take up as low as possible, to generate enough twist, just ended up with the yarn plying back on itself and twisting too much fiber into the yarn. Trying to set the take up faster just meant the yarn didn’t get enough twist and just kept pulling apart. Could just be my own inability to properly spin with a wheel, but there are also English records about the time of the spinning wheel’s invention stating it could only be used for weft yarns, as the warp yarns were not strong enough.

The weft yarn was produced out of the fluffy undercoat that was carded and spun woolen style (all the fibers laying all willy nilly). This makes a softer, fluffier, and warmer yarn that worsted style spinning. The mixed spin style and fiber prep is referenced in a couple of different finds, namely Greenland, Birka, and Osberg. There are also references to finished fabrics being teased, or fulled, to raise a nap. That’s basically felting. Worsted yarns are much Much harder to felt than woolen spun. So for fulling to be a common practice the weft, in the very least, should be spun woolen style.

My first attempt resulted in yarn that was too thick. Not because of any tool issues, just because my hands are dumb some times. I should have gotten a yarn roughly 14-16 wraps per inch, and ended up with a yarn closer to 8 after I’d plyed it. Stubbornly I dyed it and tried to convince myself it was fine since the point of the project was to use the tools, and it was getting fulled anyway, so no one would know.

I would know.

I’m respinning my weft and getting much closer to what I wanted.

For the sake of comparison I also spun some of the undercoat on the wheel, using the same prep as I did for spindle spinning. It is a lumpy bumpy mess when I try to spin as fine as I need. I ran into the same take up vs twist issues as I did with the longer top coat. Only the undercoat is so fine and short that setting a higher take up just ripped the fiber out of my hands faster than I could add more fluff. It was easier than working with the top coat, but I did need to create a much thicker yarn to make it work.

My conclusions here are that, at least for me, I can not substitute wheel spun yarn for spindle spun if I am aiming for historical cloth. The difference, in my own handspinning, is painfully apparent.


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