Drop Spinning: Advice From a Non-Expert

There’s quite a lot of technical language that you encounter when delving into the world of spinning instructions, and you’ll find yourself in an especially confusing place if you’re specifically looking for advice related to drop spindle spinning. What the f#$! is a drafting triangle and where do I put it? Do short draw and long draw even apply to me?  Why did this all suddenly become a tangled mess? It’s possible to walk AND spin AT THE SAME TIME?!

At least, these are all questions that I had when I began to learn this skill. There’s a reason for all the vocab, because spinning is a pretty technical sport, but it CAN be daunting.

The red yarn on the right is around my 3rd spinning attempt, while the green on the left is my 8th.
The red yarn on the right is around my 3rd spinning attempt, while the green on the left is my 8th.

My post Spin Cycle drew enough comments and curiosity that I felt that I should weigh in with some tips from my personal experience for those of you considering trying it out. Yes, it does start with a short vocab lesson, but I promise not to say things like “short forward draw”  or “grist” at you. This isn’t a tutorial on how to spin your first yarn – just some pointers that have helped me learn to spin better.

Pssst… a good video for absolute beginners can be found here.

A Down to Earth Vocab Lesson

Drop Spindle:  The thing what makes your yarn go. A spindle can be anything that is capable of putting a spin into a length of wool. You could used a danged rock to do it… but that wouldn’t be very efficient. There are lots of different “official” types, but let’s just start with whorl spindles: Top-Whorl and Bottom-Whorl. The “whorl” is the circular weight at, you guessed it, either the bottom or the top of the wooden dowel part. The other really important bit is the little hook which grabs your leading yarn, allowing the twirling of your device to spin the wool into yarn.

Roving Vs. Top: Roving and top are both types of wool that have been processed for spinning. The difference is that top has been prepared so that the fibers all run in the same direction. Roving fibers only go generally in the same direction. The direction of the fibers influence the feel and texture of the yarn spun from them. A more detailed rundown of fiber preparation types can be perused at this post of Craftsy’s Spinning Blog. There’s also batts, pencil roving, rolags, etc… but don’t worry about those for now.

Twist: People refer to twist like it’s some sort of barely tamed animal – and you might begin to agree. It travels, it gets stronger or weaker depending on how you feed it, and occasionally tries to escape or even throw your spindle. Basically the twist is what gives the wool strength and turns it into yarn. You add twist to your yarn by spinning your spindle – it’s the force that runs from the already-spun yarn to the drafted wool and creates the connection between the two.  Imagine the hair on your head. One hair by itself can’t hold up to much pulling.  Now imagine twirling a clump of hair together… and then tugging at it. Ouch! Physics!

Cop: It’s the bundle of already spun yarn that you wind around the straight part of your spindle. I don’t know why we can’t just call it the “yarn bundle” but that’s hobbyists for you. Sometimes you see it wound in a cone, sometimes in a beehive type shape – this is merely a matter of preference. After several times winding into a cone for my cop and having my yarn slide downward and get tangled, I switched to a beehive shape.

Drafting: Thinning out the fiber to an acceptable density to produce the thickness of yarn you desire.Because if you didn’t draft your roving you would have one thick-ass yarn. Remember that higher density = thicker yarn and lower density = thinner yarn.

Park & Draft: The method taught to beginner drop spindlers. Because it’s hard at first to draft your wool out while the spindle is dangling there twirling away, you “park” the spindle by stopping its spinning and holding it still while you draft the fiber out, releasing the already-loaded twist into the newly drafted wool bit by bit. If you didn’t park & draft then you would have to draft out the fiber fast enough to keep up with the twist that is constantly being sent upward toward your wool by the continuously spinning spindle. You can probably see how that might be frustrating.

Drop Spindle spinning

Advice from a Non-Expert: 6 Tips to help you get comfortable with spinning

1. Watch other people do it. Multiple other people –

My first foray into drop spinning was led by a girl in a Youtube video. Youtube is a great resource, especially considering most people don’t live in a neighborhood with a bunch of people who sit around spinning. Unfortunately I had chosen a video of someone who really didn’t explain well what they were doing. Scour around, watch videos and read literature from reputable sources, see how different people approach it. That way when you are learning, you know you have options.

2. Spin in several different positions –

The video I linked to at the start of the article is a really good one – except that doesn’t look anything like how I have been doing it! That’s okay though, because the best way to do it is the one that gives YOU the most satisfying results. Just like with everything else.  I started spinning by using my left hand to lead the twist, and  then switched after I had an in-person lesson and discovered I liked using my right hand to lead much better. Stand up, sit down, hold the yarn horizontal or vertical, park, don’t park… have fun.

3. Go easy –

It really doesn’t take much spin or a really dense chunk of wool to make a yarn. When I first started I was whirling the spindle like a maniac trying to twist thick hunks of fiber into thin and even yarn… it did not work out for me. My chosen video led me to believe that I should roll the spindle vigorously against my thigh and send it out into space like a flying saucer… please don’t do this when you are first learning! Waaaay too much twist led to me having terminally coily yarn that would curl so violently that it would throw the spindle from the leader yarn and across the room. Hilarious, but inefficient. A small flick of your fingers is all it takes to add enough twist to be getting on with. Hyperactive whirling can come later if you like.

4. Spin against the light-

Shine a light behind the fibers you are working with and you may discover a whole secret world of fiber relationships you were not previously aware of – giving you a much better idea about how the twist enters and gathers the drafted wool. This can lead to many good things, like altering your angles to get a smoother yarn, or deciding that you can pull from a larger or smaller section of fiber to reduce overdrafting and breakage or difficult drafting.

5. Spin something multi-colored-

Again, this can completely change your view of how the fibers gather and pull at each other. I recently spun a ball of roving with short, distinct color changes and something surprising (to me) happened… I was seeing the appearence of the next color change before I had moved past the color of the drafted section I had been holding. I was drafting green fiber but orange was appearing on the yarn! Woah. It was because the twist was entering from the middle of the drafted section and was therefore twisting & gathering the middle of the roving faster, drawing down the fibers from further on through the core of the roving. Science is neat.

6. Spin something that isn’t top-

Combed top is smooth and easygoing, all the fibers just lined up neatly and primly. That’s why it’s so good for beginners. But once you’ve tried your hand at a few pretty tops, try something more primitive. I bought 4 oz of a locally produced Tunis wool roving when I was in northern Indiana and spun it recently, vegetable matter and all. The fibers were every-which-way, fluffy, all different thicknesses, and all in all just hard to control… which is why it was such good experience.  I really like a wild’n’wooly look, actually, which is why I’m working on another local wool at the moment.

Icelandic Wool roving - you can see how the yarn I'm spinning here is fuzzier than the green and red handspuns pictured earlier. This is a good example of roving (the Icelandic) versus top (the green and red yarns)
Icelandic Wool roving – you can see how the yarn I’m spinning here is fuzzier than the green and red handspun yarns pictured earlier. 

Where once upon a time a yarn that was thick-and-thin or messy would just be considered a bad spinning job, that kind of yarn is now in high demand as “art yarn” or “novelty yarn.”  So you really can’t lose! Hold your head high and conquer that wool.

My very first handspun ended up being doll hair :)
My very first handspun ended up being doll hair 🙂 Meet Java Gypsy, my amigurumi doll beauty from 2011. Her body is made from recycled cotton/poly sweater yarn dyed with coffee and her clothes are old upholstery samples!

Have drop spinning questions? Leave a comment!


32 thoughts on “Drop Spinning: Advice From a Non-Expert

Add yours

  1. I love Java Gypsy with a passion!!

    I liked number 3 tip – Go Easy. Crap, I laughed when you were describing how your spindle flew across the room.

    I watched the vid you recommended in your last post on YouTube, then went exploring and watched a few others.

    Thanks for this great post!

  2. Thank you! I loved Java too, but she went to a good home so I can rest easy about her. 🙂 Perhaps I will post some of my other crocheted characters soon!

  3. Thank you. Thank you for putting all these things in language I understand, and helping me believe that one day I might make something recognizable as yarn!

    1. You are so welcome! Drop spinning was so difficult for me at first that I gave it up for almost three years before I really started trying again. Persevere! It’s worth it!

  4. I’ve gotten through a book on the lingo, and I spun some wildly shifting yarn (which I used part of as the fringe on a bookmark to a woman who is too far away to help me- a different continent- but so glad I’m enjoying one of her old hobbies, and will do something similar for my own scrapbook or something) and now I’m doing stuff that at least is within a 2 yarn weight category on my second try. I haven’t had any UIFOs (unexpected identified flying objects) but am pinning this because you are so clear, and the vocab still sometimes trips me up,, and it might help others who are looking for stuff about yarn, just as the person whose post I found it through 🙂

    1. I’m so glad it was helpful to you! Spinning is one of the most rewarding skills I have ever learned. It’s even more meditative than knitting or crocheting (and much much more so than sewing, lol!) I have gotten a wheel since I wrote this post, which was very worth it considering how much I spin, but the drop spindle will always have a special place in my heart.

  5. There are many types of natural fibers that can be made into yarn,how would one go about spinning pet hair into a workable yarn for specific projects, when I don’t have any carders or a spinning apprentices of any kind.????

      1. In keeping with the ‘just do it’ theme, I brush my dog for the fluffy undercoat, loosely card it, make a small rolag using chopsticks, and spindle away. The fluff can just be held in small batches to spin from also. The best advice I got from my mentor was to get comfortable with the process without getting mired down in vocabulary. I’ve been spindle spinning for two months with happy happy results and I learn as I go.

    1. I didn’t have any carders, and read an Amazon review about someone complaining that her cat brushes from the dollar store do a better job than the carders I was reading reviews on. So guess what… I went to the dollar store, bought two cat brushes — and they do work pretty passably! I’ll buy real ones later, but I’m just playing around right now and learning the skills, and this was a fun addition to what I was doing.

      1. I’ve heard of using pet brushes too- they are reportedly a great introduction to the process and work pretty well if you don’t want to make the leap to buying more expensive equipment yet.

  6. Thank you so much for your lucid, knowledgeable and extremely concise and well written drop spindle post!! Your love of both language and fiber is noted and very much appreciated.

  7. This is really helpful. Thank you. Any tips on how to move on from park and draft? I have been using a drop spindle for ages and every time I try to draft without parking my yarn breaks!

    1. For me the type of wool really made a difference. I found Corriedale wool a really forgiving fiber to work with on drop spindle, or any other fiber with a long staple length and a decent amount of “grab” to the fibers – my luck was not as good with cheaper “blend” wool rovings which tended to be clumpier and harder to work with. In fact, if you’re working from rovings you might consider switching to batts, as I have had some trouble with factory compression in rovings messing up my spinning on the drop spindle, even if I prepped the fiber first. I also started out using a really random spindle weight – you want to make sure your spindle is the appropriate weight (seems obvious but it took me a while to figure out, lol!)

  8. This is an excellent lesson for the new spinner. I’ve been spinning for almost 20 years now but mostly on a wheel. I picked up the drop spindle again about 6 years ago. I really like that you’re not throwing too much technical stuff in that would make it seem daunting for a new spinner. I’ll keep this handy to share with new spinners.

  9. Good hints! As a fairly new spinner I concur with your advice…and will try the hint to spin with multicolored fiber.

  10. Hi! Very interesting article! I’m a beginner, and I just completed my first project – a crocheted rose for my hair made from yarn I spun from recycled cotton from my vitamin bottles.

    I’m interested in learning to ply yarn, but I don’t think I understand the concept. All the instructions say to ply the yarn the opposite direction from when I spun the singles, but when I do this, my singles untwist and become weak. Am I just not twisting them enough? Any suggestions?

    1. Hi Laurie! It’s definitely possible that you aren’t adding enough twist – if your singles fall apart when you ply, you’ll need to add more twist when spinning them so they have plenty left to keep them together. I love that you are spinning upcycled fiber from your vitamin bottles too! However, cotton is a harder fiber to spin because the length of the fibers are much shorter than wool fibers. Typically handspinners who deal with cotton use a special type of drop spindle designed for that fiber – so that might also be a factor in your difficulties.

      1. Hi, Laurie,
        Regina has good advice. I’d like to add a couple of things. Cotton fibers are very short. They need a fast spin, and do better with a thinner preparation. I have never had a special spindle, but it might help. Too little twist just won’t necessarily catch those short fibers well. I tell my students that ‘thin holds more spin’ and so does not back spin as fast, giving you more time to play with your drafting; but with really short fibers, you just about have to get a lot of spin into it, to hold together. It is really fun to make your own string from medicine bottle cotton! Put in a good amount of spin and when you run out of cotton ball, have someone hold the middle of the finished strand. Bring the ends together, then let the whole thing twist back on itself, and you’ll have self-plied string.Keep playing!
        Mindy from Tme2Unwind

    1. Hi Alex! I wash my wool in room temperature water in a small tub, using specialty fiber wash called Synthrapol from Dharma Trading Company. I submerge the fiber and very gently press it in the water with a very small amount of the soap, then rinse the same way several times in clear water.

  11. Thank you for the great information. I just found the Turkish drop spindle and fell in love. Now I need to learn to ply. I am very happy with my new spindles.

Leave a Reply to MelissaCancel reply

Up ↑