Spinning as a craft dates back over 10,000 years with the spinning wheel taking over from the humble yet tactile spindle around a millennium ago. As a hobby, interest in hand spinning yarn has ebbed and flowed as fashions change but has enjoyed a resurgence within the last decade or so. We have also seen an additional boom during lockdown as many of us found the time to discover new skills to help offset the anxieties of living through a global pandemic.
Spinning is an excellent skill with a long and fascinating history which, once mastered, is therapeutic as well as productive. For many budding spinners, however, it can seem like a very deep and daunting rabbit hole to fall into but fear not! I have had the pleasure of teaching spinners for a number of years now and have collected a number of tips and tricks to help you get started on your spinning journey!
1. Learn from others!
As a spinning teacher I will admit to being a wee bit biased in this respect but having an experienced spinner show you the ropes in person or virtually makes a huge difference in the early stages! Nowadays we are lucky to have access to multiple options online from YouTube videos and Zoom classes to dedicated tutorials but nothing beats spinning with a real person if you get the chance. This could be in the form of a workshop at your local guild or a one-to-one class with a spinning tutor such as myself - or even an hour or two with a friend of a friend who used to spin yarn in the 70s… just having that human interaction with immediate feedback when you’re struggling can really help the process click!
Of course this isn’t going to be possible for everyone and many people are unable to travel long distances for a hobby, in which case try getting involved with a few of the online spinning groups on Facebook or Ravelry, you will be amazed by how many incredible spinners there are out there in our community!
2. Try Before you Buy!
So you’ve decided you want to buy your first spinning wheel - congratulations! As above, it isn’t going to be possible for everyone but if you have the opportunity to try and test out as many wheels as you can before purchasing I recommend it. Nowadays you have a choice of incredible wheels ranging from modern workhorses like the Ashford Kiwi 3 to timeless classics such as the Kromski Symphony with all manner of upgrades that you can add on to enhance your hand spun yarns.
What do you want in a wheel? Is portability an issue? Do you want to spin laceweight yarns or super chunky art yarns or everything in between?
There are so many questions to consider but ultimately this leads me to my next tip:
3. Go for the Wheel that your Heart Chooses!
It’s going to sound a bit twee but sometimes it is best to let your heart lead your head when it comes to choosing your first (or second, third, fourth etc…) wheel.
A spinning wheel, even second hand, is a big purchase and not something you want to regret at a later date. If you don’t like the look of modern wheels and have your heart set on a beautiful Saxony style such as the Ashford Traditional or Kromski Symphony then stand by your guns. It’s a lot easier to find the patience to learn how to spin on a wheel that makes your heart skip a beat when you look at it than with the wheel that you were talked into buying because it’s ‘the best choice for x, y or z’.
Will there be moments when you question your decision? Possibly.
Do you have options to help you if you’re struggling? Definitely.
Remember also that each wheel is unique and learning how to spin on your own dream wheel allows you to get to grips with all your wheel’s quirks and features.
4. Have Patience!
You‘ve made your decision, you’ve tested all your options and your dream wheel is now sitting pride of place in your living room. You’ve spent hours poring through books and websites and videos on spinning, you’ve mastered the drop spindle and you’ve had a class on the wheel. You sit down excitedly to spin your first yarn on your very own spinning wheel but your fibre keeps running away from you, your wheel keeps turning in the wrong direction and you want to break down and cry… for a minute you regret ever buying the damned thing in the first place.
We have all been there, don’t worry.
It is one of the most annoying sayings but it really is true: practice makes perfect.
If you are getting stressed, walk away, have a cup of tea, rant to your best friend about how difficult it is, calm down and go back to the wheel later.
As with any other skill there is a learning curve, more so as you are training your brain to work your feet and your hands independently of each other which takes practice - I usually describe it as trying to rub your belly and tap your head whilst singing a song in Gaelic..
5. Activate your Muscle Memory
Whether you are using a single or double treadle the first major hurdle in your spinning journey is learning how to control your feet. Almost every single person I have ever taught to spin has struggled with treadling so do not panic or feel ashamed if you are also having difficulties.
The first thing we do when I sit my students down behind the wheel is ask them to treadle without touching any fibre. We go clockwise and then anti-clockwise, we stop and start and within a couple of minutes they’re usually hankering for some fibre to start drafting claiming that they’ve ‘got it’ or ‘this is easy!’
The moment they begin to draft, however, it all comes tumbling down and the treadling goes for a burton! ‘It’s not as easy as it looks’ is the usual exclamation.
The best piece of advice I was ever given that I teach to all my students is to activate your muscle memory. While you are actively thinking about treadling and drafting at the same time it is going to feel overwhelming and difficult but by learning how to treadle without thinking about it you can focus all your attention on your hands and the yarn creation. This is really not as difficult as it sounds I promise!
Take time to sit and treadle whilst doing something completely different with your hands. Knit, crochet or drop spin if you wish, write a letter or do a crossword puzzle. Provided your feet are moving independently of your hands this motion will start to feel natural to the point that you will no longer have to think about what your are doing. When you have learned how to master controlling the direction of your wheel and stopping and starting without using your hands you will find the process a whole lot easier!
6. 15 Minutes a Day
This one is pretty self-explanatory but a really helpful trick to ease you into spinning your own yarns. By cutting down your spinning time into small chunks of ten to fifteen minutes a day for say, a month, you will see a slow but steady change in your quality of spinning.
If you’re having a bad day when you feel that everything is going wrong it’s ok, it’s only for 15 minutes.
If by contrast you’re having a great day and your yarn is looking beautiful and balanced, take a break after 15 minutes and end on a high.
7. Don’t be Afraid to Make Mistakes!
As infuriating as they are, mistakes are how we learn and it’s much easier to get these all out of the way in the early stages of learning to spin than getting yourself in a pickle and not knowing how to fix it later down the road.
I can tell you time and again to beware of the perils of over- and under-spinning but sometimes you have to learn for yourself exactly WHY this is the case.
Mess up, make mistakes, short of breaking your wheel physically what harm can it cause? The important thing is to learn from your mistakes and practice getting it right the next time.
Likewise, don’t be afraid to stop! So often I see students getting stressed out because they accidentally treadle their wheel the wrong way and overcompensate by switching direction and treadling faster in an attempt to fix it, getting themselves in a tizzy and their yarn in a mess.
You accidentally spun anti-clockwise? No panic… stop the wheel, take a breath, check your bobbin and the hooks on your flyer, make sure your yarn is wound neatly onto your bobbin and start again.
8. Rubbish Fibre Makes Rubbish Yarn
A colleague of mine in a past job once told me when editing videos that ‘sh*te in equals sh*te out’ and it’s a phrase I stand behind to this day. Badly prepared or low quality fibre is hands down the worst option when learning to spin. The assumption is usually that you don’t want to ‘waste’ good fibre at the beginning but I promise you that this is false economy.
Good quality fibre does not need to mean expensive - by all means I am a massive fan of luxury floofs and I am like a magpie when it comes to batts and tops filled with silk, alpaca, yak, cashmere etc, but when it comes to learning you cannot go wrong with a good quality wool breed such as Bluefaced Leicester or Shetland.
These two breeds in particular are my go-to when teaching as they have great crimp, manageable staple lengths and are nice and lofty and easy to draft. Merino, on the other hand, as soft and luxurious as it is, can be a bit of a bugger to work with as it can be a slippy and dense fibre that I personally find to be quite difficult for beginners to use.
I personally recommend learning to spin using the short or front draw method and commercially prepared wool top as it is easier to see what you are doing with your hands but each spinner and teacher will have their own preferences.
9. Predrafting is Your Best Friend
Anybody who shames you for predrafting your fibre is a snob and don‘t listen to them. There is absolutely no reason not to make spinning easier for yourself while you are learning the ropes. Once comfortable you can for sure spin directly from a batt or draft from the end of a wool top but predrafting your fibre into thinner strips makes the job more manageable and if it helps you then DO IT!
Remember: there is no such thing as the Spinning Police!
10. Don’t Compare Yourself to Other People.
Out of all the tips I have for you this is by far the most important. Promise me now that you will never look at your handspun yarn and berate yourself because it’s not ‘as good’ as someone elses’. Every spinner is different, some people might take the wheel faster than others but there is no such thing as a Natural Spinner - everybody has their own difficulties when trying to learn and you do not see the hours of practice that it took to create the yarn that you are admiring on Instagram or Pinterest.
You do not have to be the best spinner on the planet to enjoy the craft and the process is as important as the finished project so be kind to yourself and embrace the lumps, bumps and slubs of your hand spun yarns, they are as unique as you are!
I really hope these tips have helped you, if you have any others that you would like to share please leave a comment below!