I’m going to let you in on a little secret. I have been spinning for a little over 5 years and have never once spun on a traditional spinning wheel with treadles. I’m sharing with you my favourite spinning methods on an e-spinner to create thick and low-twist yarns. These types of yarns are wonderful to incorporate into your fibre art as they are quick to weave up due to their thickness and they create beautiful texture as well.
My recommended fibre for thick, low-twist yarns is a low micron (19–23 microns is optimal) Merino wool pencil roving. Using Merino, as opposed to Corriedale for example, gives the yarn a more polished look and feel, whereas Corriedale has a fuzzier, crinkled look and feel. The fibre I have used to create these yarns is a 23-micron Merino wool which has a fibre length of 75–80mm and is approximately 1 inch thick.
Slow and steady
My best tip for spinning thick and low twist is to use a very slow speed setting. On an Ashford jumbo e-spinner, for example, I recommend 40% or lower while you are getting used to spinning these thicker yarns. This may seem difficult if you are used to spinning on a high setting (or fast treadling). As you become more comfortable with these methods, try increasing the speed to 50%.
If you find too much twist getting into the yarn, lower the speed, or to help wind onto the bobbin faster, you can intermittently grab the flyer while the wheel is on and feed the yarn onto the bobbin.
Drafting and spinning
The fibre I use is thick (1 inch) but not dense, so I don’t pre-draft, but I do split it down its length to thin it out. If you are using a thinly prepared fibre already, you can skip this step. If you are using an art batt, it would be helpful to draft or diz the fibre into a 1/2-inch thick strip.
Set your speed at 40% or the equivalent (slow is what you’re looking for). Working as close to the orifice as possible, begin to spin a finer yarn. For at least the first foot and last foot of spinning, it’s helpful to spin the yarn finer and allow extra twist into the fibre to stabilise and strengthen each end of the yarn.
To create a slubby, thick and thin style yarn, each time you draft the fibre, make it inconsistent, sometimes drafting thin and sometimes drafting thick. To achieve this, vary the length you pull out the fibres each time you draft; sometimes draft them out farther to create a thin spot and sometimes not as far to leave it thicker in one spot. It’s important to work as close to the orifice as possible and on a slower speed than you are used to spinning. If you are working too far away from the orifice, you’ll allow more twist into the fibre than required. I draft the fibre almost at the same time as feeding onto the bobbin. My fibre hand holds the fibre about a foot away from the orifice as my other hand drafts the fibre, sliding down into the drafting triangle to smooth the yarn while feeding the yarn onto the bobbin at the same time.
You need to work with quick hands to feed the freshly spun yarn onto the bobbin. This is why working on the lower setting is optimal. Too fast and your hands won’t keep up with the speed.
Thick yarn strands tend to slide off each other on the bobbin when they build up too much in one section, so pause and slide the yarn guide as often as you can to even out the yarn on the bobbin. This yarn is thick at 7 yards for 1.75 ounces.
I find that spinning an even chubbier yarn isn’t as finicky when I use straight up combed top due to the light amount of twist in the yarn. Again I like using 23-micron Merino, but unlike the thick and thin yarn, you don’t need to thin this fibre. If you are using a thin strip (1/2 inch or less), you might consider using 2 lengths at the same time to thicken your base fibre. If you are using an art batt, draft or diz into a 1-inch thick fibre.
Just like before, set your speed to slow (I recommend 40%), work as close to the orifice as possible, and spin the first and last foot of spinning finer and with extra twist.
A very bulky but even yarn requires the most minimal amount of drafting. I’d hardly even call it drafting. It’s more stretching the fibres with slight resistance in the drafting triangle to straighten and smooth the fibres. Keep your drafting consistent to create an even yarn by pulling the same amount of fibre into the drafting triangle each time. This will ensure your yarn doesn’t end up thick and thin.
If you find that too much twist is travelling into the yarn, you might occasionally want to switch the wheel off, let some of the twist out, and wind the bobbin manually to get the drafting triangle back to the orifice. This yarn is even thicker at 4.5 yards for 1.75 ounces.
It’s much trickier to create joins when doing a thick, low-twist yarn. The longer the length of fibre you have, the better. When joining on a new piece of fibre, to minimise the risk of breaking, draft the new end and the old end so they become quite whispy before joining them together. This will ensure the join is as seamless as possible.
Setting the yarns
I generally don’t set these yarns as I find that it creates a more felted look to the yarn, which is not the look I’m trying to achieve. If, however, you would prefer to set the yarn, I’d suggest winding the yarn onto a niddy noddy and steaming the yarn on the niddy noddy with a steamer. If you don’t have a steamer, you can use the steam function on your iron. Please be careful as steam is hot and take appropriate precautions to avoid injury. Remove the yarn from the niddy noddy and hang outdoors to air dry. If your yarns turn out a bit messy looking, you might prefer to give it a hot soak and agitate it in the water as fulling it a bit can help hide these imperfections.
Creating a super thick yarn can be much less forgiving than spinning finer yarns, mistakes can be quite noticeable, and it produces much less yardage than a finer yarn does. If you find that your first try doesn’t come out quite as well as you’d hoped, just remember it takes time. I have been making these yarns almost every day for quite some time, and my technique improves every time I spin. Keep the speed low and practice lots. You’ve got this!
This article was originally written for Ply Magazine, published in issue 33 Summer 2021. Words by Rainie Owen, photographs by Lee Illfield.