Spinning: a new obsession

Some time ago, my mother took up spinning. She researched, practiced, took workshops, and tried to entangle me into her hobby too, by buying lovely hand-crafted spindles and eventually, my own spinning wheel. I tried spinning, off and on, for a couple of years, but it never really got hold of me, and eventually the wheel ended up in the back of the upstairs closet, along with a few bobbins of lumpily spun “beginner’s singles”.

Turns out, it wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy spinning, it’s that I had started with the wrong fiber (rough, slightly matted mill ends still coated with spinning oil) and, for me, the wrong wheel. Now, don’t get me wrong – the wheel I had was a top-of-the-line model and had many nice features. But it never felt right for me. Even as I’d practice and get more consistent at controlling my treadle speed and drafting technique, I always felt like I was fighting the wheel, teetering on the edge of calamity. It just wasn’t very enjoyable.

Then, my mother took a workshop with the esteemed and very experienced Maggie Casey (Maggie’s website), and got to try her new travel wheel, the Schacht Sidekick. Mom liked it so much, she decided to sell her old travel wheel and buy one. And then, one day at the Tunbridge World’s Fair, while we were demonstrating fiber crafts at the sheep barn, I asked the fateful question: “Hey Mom, can I try your new wheel?”

The effect was instant and powerful. Suddenly, I could spin easily, meditatively, calmly, and fairly consistently. Spinning was FUN! So, with mother’s generous approval, I sold my old wheel and bought a similar model, the Shacht Ladybug. It has made all the difference in my enjoyment of this new-to-me craft.

The main difference between the Schacht wheels and the Majacraft Little Gem that I started with, is that, because the Little Gem relies on a tiny drive wheel to turn the main wheel, you have to treadle very fast, even when using a larger ratio on the whorl. It was like trying to learn to ride a bike that wasn’t fitted properly, or that only had one high-speed gear. For me, the Schacht wheels just fit better, but it’s all a matter of personal experience. I tell friends and visitors at craft shows who are interested in spinning: the best thing to do is to try a lot of different wheels. The process is sort of like buying a car (spinning wheels are machines after all). You have to pick one that feels right, that’s comfortable to drive. It doesn’t have to be the most expensive or fancy model, it just has to work for you.

Ladybug spinning wheel, blue yarn and a sheepskin
Ladybug spinning wheel, blue yarn and a sheepskin

Anyway, I’m happy to report that after only a few hours on my new wheel, I was able to finish spinning singles that I’d started on my mom’s Sidekick, and then to successfully ply my first yarn. I must say that watching instructional videos by Judith MacKinzey and Maggie Casey was also tremendously helpful. Judith especially has a bit of a rambling style as an instructor, but the amount of information that she packs into those videos is well worth the price, and a repeat viewing (or four).

So, incorporating these two crafts (spinning and knitting) together, my first goal is to finish spinning this lovely blue roving (Potluck Roving – going out of production, unfortunately) and knit it into some kind of set (probably a hat and cowl, depending on yardage). Then, for the ambitious beginner, I plan to spin two bags of natural brown Shetland roving that I got from a friend a few years ago. The goal is to spin a similar weight to Shelter, which the pattern calls for (but, you know, soft) and knit this wonderful, semi-reversible (or styleable?) sweater by Veronik Avery. It’s going to take a while, but the journey should be fun.

Meanwhile, I was looking up tools for winding and storing handspun yarn (Judith says one should amass 40 bobbins so that you can spin lots of singles and then mix and match them up before plying, for a more even yarn). This is not financially possible for me, at $20-$40 per bobbin from the company that made my wheel, but then I found the Bobbins Up!, a plastic storage bobbin that attaches to an electric drill (of which we already own several) for winding [video review & demo]. It even has a whorl on one side, for use on a tensioned kate. Spinning may be one of the oldest crafts in the world, but modern technology rocks!

Published by Sarah Scully

Sarah is a librarian as well as an avid knitter and occasional knitwear designer. She also enjoys cooking, gardening, hiking, reading, painting, and writing with fountain pens.