Alpacalypse Now

Guys, I’m really sorry about that pun. Sort of.

You see, last Saturday I turned in my final assignment for my Bachelor’s degree, so I’ve been bursting forth with renewed energy on all the ongoing craft projects laying around my home. And exuberant art energy requires puns.

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So that’s my segue into my post today, talking about one of the things I love to do when I have a little extra time – spinning! Well, it’s also just an excuse for shameless yarn porn.

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I’ve been spinning periodically, although I haven’t really made a blog post about it recently. I did a silly thing a while back and ordered a massive amount of beautiful alpaca fiber from Alpaca Direct. I resolved to spin it all, and wrote a whole post about it –ย  which, now that I look at that post, was over two years ago. Slow art for the win!

Because, I totally did spin it all! Yep, all of it. Some of it even made it into projects for my friends along the way. This is me, plying together the last bit of the natural white alpaca fiber, on my trusty wheel.

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Her name is Mystic.

I made it through the pound of natural white, the 12 oz of dark brown, and SOME of the 8 oz of lighter brown (from Valentina) that I purchased at a later date. I eventually gave up on spinning it all consistently, and went in for the fast and wacky approach for the last half of the natural white. I love the variation in textures I got!

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For the white yarn, some skeins were consistent, some were chunky, and some were singles. The dark brown (being the first batch I did) was pretty even, and the light brown is a bulky, fluffy affair.

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I am really loving these natural tones, which is a good thing because my beautiful friends sometimes give me secondhand fiber.ย  Last summer I was gifted a big bag of RAW alpaca fiber in a beautiful pecan brown color; the catch is, this fiber is really unprocessed.

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Which is actually not a catch at all, since I finally had an excuse to purchase some carding equipment! Hand carders (still not enough resources to justify a drum carder ๐Ÿ˜› ) were acquired and now I am clumsily learning to use them.

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I’m not great at it yet, especially since I have to keep switching to my left hand so that my right arm doesn’t end up noticeably more beefy – this activity is a WORKOUT. But as you can see, I’m producing a few silly looking rolags from the raw material so I can spin them, bit by bit, on the drop spindle.

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Excuse my awkward fiber sausage

Its tempting to build a pile of rolags and then spin them all on the wheel for speed’s sake, but for now I am enjoying the process of drop spindling them, so that I can learn how the fibers act when they are hand carded like this. I’ve been favoring the spindle lately anyway, after a period of neglect. Its simplicity and portability is really attractive and valuable, even though wheel spinning is more efficient, so I’m glad I learned both.

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The real question is, what the hell am I going to make with 4 pounds of handspun alpaca fiber? Stay tuned, maybe I’ll know in another two years! ๐Ÿ˜‰

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Here’s a picture of my moon lamp, for no reason other than its pretty!

-MF

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Roving Color Bomb

There’s been a color explosion over at my Etsy Shop recently as I listed some beautiful rovings that I dyed over Spring Break – along with some other new summer goodies!

This was the largest dye session I’ve managed yet, and I’m happy to say that my process has come a long way since my first foray into fiber dyeing. Here’s a peek at the madness I unleashed on my poor kitchen! It all starts with coffee, of course.

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And here’s the results!

I dyed 4 braids of that earthy multicolored green and brown; it’s a generic wool blend from Dharma Trading Co. – no wool breed listed, but it spins up super nicely. The other three or so braids became faux dreadlocks using a combination of spinning and felting.

I also split the “Mango Punch” colorway BFL braid into thirds and spun one of the thirds for quality control purposes and also because I couldn’t help but play with some of that luscious color after all that work! It spun really beautifully paired with a deep emerald BFL roving from my stash into a bright art yarn I call “Jungle Juice.”

The other 2/3rds of that braid is listed in my shop at a discount since it’s already split!

As much as I am enjoying classes, I’m antsy and anxious as hell for the freedom to keep dyeing and spinning and stitching without other obligations. But I need to buckle down and finish the semester.

Well, maybe just one more row.

-MF

Roving Adventures: Steam Setting

As I walked in the door triumphantly with my 33 quart enamel ware canner I got super cheap at Goodwill, I had prepared my explanation about how useful it would be when I had my future garden or got a good deal at the farmer’s market to preserve the theoretical fresh produce. The justification for buying a pot too large to even fit through our cabinet doors, if we even had the cabinet space in the first place (we don’t) was loaded and ready.

My very intelligent boyfriend was not fooled.

“You’re just going to use that to dye stuff, aren’t you?”

Yes. Yes I am.

 

This was my first true venture into steam setting – I tried to do it in the dye crockpot once but it was a pain in the ass. The resulting roving from the crockpot steam was pretty, but not as dark as I intended.

“Mermaid Hair”

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I’m thrilled with how my two latest batches came out…

“Ardor”

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Ardor1 Ardor2

“Witching Hour”

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I can’t wait to spin these. Unfortunately they are pretty far back in the “to spin” pile. I guess I need a wheel!

-MF

Fractal Plying on a Drop Spindle

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Fractal plying seems to be everywhere I look in the spinning world. And for good reason- it’s an interesting way to work with color that adds a bit of spontaneity and surprise to the look of the finished product. I’ve been excitedly waiting for the right moment to spin up the 50/50 Merino Silk top from Corgi Hill Farm, and this seemed to be it.

The quintessential Noddy Shot

The quintessential Noddy Shot

Ben from Schacht Spindle Blog has a wonderful explanation of fractal spinning here. It’s really fairly straightforward for a 2-ply yarn: Take roving, split in half down the middle. Set aside one 1/2 portion, take the other 1/2 portion and split it into quarters.

The 1/2 portion gets spun from end to end into a single, creating long color changes. The quarter portions get spun end to end one after another into one long single with four repeats of shorter color changes. See? Barely any math at all!

The key to keeping things fractal is always spinning from the same direction. Say one end of your roving is red and one is blue. If you start to spin one portion of roving from the red end, you will also start every other portion of roving from the red end as well.

Lovely right? Except I’m working with a drop spindle, which presents unique problems. There’s simply no way I am going to fit 2 oz of laceweight single ply on a 5/8 oz drop spindle, which means that my two portions of fiber can’t be spun or plied as uninterrupted singles. Since most descriptions of fractal plying are on spinning wheels, this problem isn’t mentioned much – you load your 1/2 portion onto a bobbin and your 4 1/8 portions onto a different bobbin – easy. Not so with the spindle – 21 g of fiber loaded on was pushing it.

The only other reference to fractal plying with a drop spindle I have seen so far is the Spinning for Stripes series of posts from “Mom” at Simply Notable. After some comment-area sleuthing, I discovered that Mom using felted joining on her singles to get around this problem.

I am way too uptight and control-freaky for that, plus my attempts at felted joins never seem to hold up (especially not in this case, since my fiber is half silk!). I was going to have to spin separate skeins.

My solution? Spin one of my quarter portions from end to end – load onto a toilet paper roll, and weigh it out (subtracting the weight of the cardboard roll). This portion weighed out to 17 grams.

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The short repeat ply is up front (labeled as 1/4 – 17 g) and the longer repeat is at the back.

Take the 1/2 portion (the roving that is half of the original) and weighย out the first 17 grams, taking care to start at the correct end, and separate the length (as you would to grab a piece – not down the middle). Spin up this 17 grams and load it onto a toilet paper roll. Once plied together with the 17 grams of 1/4 portion, this will be Skein #1.

The first 17 g of the 1/2 portion of roving

The first 17 g of the 1/2 portion of roving

This first part worked awesomely, producing a perfectly matched pair of plies to make into a yarn.

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The first two singles plied together to form the first skein of fractal yarn.

The moment I measured out 21 grams for the next skein, I knew there would be a problem: Due to my imprecise splitting of the roving, my main roving section was not going to measure up to all my 1/4 portions. I was going to have over 10 grams of leftover singles. Disappointing.

Well, next time I will weigh out my roving as I’m splitting it, and hopefully that will help. As for the leftover singles, I will just ply them differently. Carrying on!

The weighing strategy worked well, at least, for making sure my plies were nearly the same length – the yardage for #2 was not perfectly matched like for #1, but it was very close.

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I couldn’t resist posting pictures, even though I am still currently working on producing skein #3. I did mess around with chain/Navajo plying some of the extra fiber, for comparing and contrasting and such.

The Navajo ply method keeps the colors tidily separated

The Navajo ply method keeps the colors tidily separated

Lastly I’d like to add that since my fiber was dyed in aย repeating colorway, it’s not really vital to the look of the future FO that I carefully number my skeins – because each skein has a very similar look. However, were I working with a fiber dyed in aย gradient colorwayย the order in which I worked up my skeins would matter a lot more because each skein would contain a long color repeat ply that was different than the other skeins. ย Now, more pictures.

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I dubbed this yarn “Bag of Jewels” because of the gemstone colors and the rich sheen the silk adds to the finished product. I am excited to knit something with it, but the work involved with spinning it in the first place is definitely an accomplishment in its own right!

-MF

EDIT 9/8/15 – If you’d like a more in-depth look on how to choose rovings for fractal spinning, here’s a great article (as always) from Knitty.

EDIT 6/7/16 – I ended up crocheting with this fractal ply yarn, if you’re curious to see how fractal ply measures up to being crocheted, you can see the piece featuring this yarn here.ย ย As usual with variegated yarns, crocheted pieces muddle the colors more, but it did turn out lovely all the same. AND I was able to make a knit headband to match.

2-Ply or Not 2-Ply?

So far my spinning accomplishments have limited myself to singles (one-ply yarns) for multiple reasons.

One is that I adore singles for their neat, sleek appearance and the wonderful stitch definition you get from them, as well as the beautiful way colors pop on a single-ply strand. Witness!

Knit Picks Chroma Fingering

Knit Picks Chroma Fingering

Red Heart Boutique Unforgettable

Red Heart Boutique Unforgettable

Schoppel-Wolle Zauberball

Schoppel-Wolle Zauberball

Another reason I have remained single-ply is that within my current range of spinning equipment, plying any decent length of yarn is a really royal pain.

So why ply at all? F&%$ it, right?

Of course not. Art is about SMASHING YOUR LIMITATIONS!!!

Spinning a single requires allowing enough twist to enter the fiber so that it has some strength and doesn’t just fall apart. The twist increases the density of the fiber, making the strand firmer the more you twist it. This means that a really strong strand or ply is going to be pretty firm as well – and why would you want to stitch up clothing that feels like a bunch of rope rather than cushy, soft yarn?

Of course, as illustrated above, there are plenty of single ply yarns that are more than adequate for making cushy soft things. Plying is merely one way to balance strength and fluff – allowing 2 plies of fiber to unleash some of their twist energy by winding around each other fluffs them up while combining their strength.

I came to fully realize this concept when I began to spin a sample piece of Targhee roving. I’ll save my rave reviews of this breed’s fiber for another post – for now I’ll just say that I spun it fairly thin (which was easy because this stuff is AWESOME.. ahem). But, damn, the spongy wonderfulness of this wool didn’t seem to translate into my spun single. It was just too dense.

The Targhee single in the completed Andean wrap

The Targhee single in the completed Andean wrap “bracelet”

Since this was just a sample yarn I was doing for fun, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to try out Andean plying, a method of producing 2-ply yarn using only one strand of 1-ply, using (as far as I can tell) some sort of weird mountain shaman yarn magic.

Just kidding. The Andean ply wrap is really not as complicated as it looks, once you try it out.

This special way of wrapping allows you to feed the two opposite ends of the single strand onto your spindle at once, plying them together.

WARNING: Wrap loosely, for the sake of your digits. My tension was not relaxed enough and by the end my middle finger was purple and felt like it was going to fall off, which would suck, because that is my favorite finger.

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Once I had that conquered, I plied my yarn, making sure to spin my spindle in the opposite direction (clockwise) that my single ply was spun (counterclockwise). Spinning clockwise produces what is referred to as an “z” twist, while counterclockwise is referred to as “s” twist.

Do you see an

Do you see an “z” in there? I don’t.

Success! What was once a very firm single that would have made a terrible hat was transformed into a soft 2-ply, retaining the bouncy charm of the Targhee fiber but with the strength of a single. It would make a great hat, if I had more than 40 yards of it. Maybe that will soon be remedied.

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-MF

P.S – I knitted up a tiny swatch just to see what it was like. As this great articleย from Knitty Spin attests, handspun does indeed have an energy unique and different than machine made. Mine was practically leaping off of my needles! Interesting.

Fiber Review: Tussah Silk

Drop Spinning Tussah Silk

Being a big fan of taking dramatic, bipolar shifts in whatever projects I am working on (apparently), I took a break from my scratchy, wild Icelandic wool roving pile to work on spinning something else. While I am still enjoying the tangly, tugworthy, charms of the wild pile I featured in my last spinning post, I wanted to test out some fiber I’ve had in my basket for a long time: Tussah Silk.

240 yards, 19-22 WPI, 1.9 oz.

Drop-spun Icelandic wool: 240 yards, 19-22 WPI, 1.9 oz.

So different from the Icelandic! First, a word on Tussah:

Tussah silk is the “wild” type of silk, collected from worms “not specifically bred for silk production” according to this great post at Craftsy Blog. The cultivated type of silk is called Bombyx silk. The natural length of silk filament is about a kilometer long, produced from the worm all in one go to make a cocoon which is later boiled down and unwound to make the fiber. Yep, silk is made by boiling little worms to death, at least in traditional sericulture (silk production). I was a little traumatized about this, but then went on to read that there are silks made from cocoons that the worms have been allowed to leave. Still a pretty big bummer for the worms, though.

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I purchased this fiber from Corgi Hill Farmย on Etsy, one of my favorite homegrown dye operations. ย This 2.1 oz silk top roving came in a simple but lovely dual-tone, chocolate brown with patches of the natural silk color, a very pretty cream with a golden sheen. ย I couldn’t wait to see how it would spin.

Silk feels so delicate that I was handling this light, thin roving like it was a relic from the lost city of Atlantis… until I pulled out a piece to test the staple length. It was long.ย The staple length of my silk top wasn’t a kilometer (thank goodness) – but it was about 5-6 inches, making for a much easier drafting length than I expected.

Flash forward to me spinning. What a smooth, dreamy quality this fiber has, allowing me to release the twist into the roving and just steadily draw the fibers out, with relatively little stopping and starting – OH CRAP the continuity just broke. And that is how it happens – in the blink of an eye, the gorgeous smooth silk just POOF falls away, giving almost no signals that the fiber is losing its grip. Usually when drop spinning I rely on the sight of my drafting fiber beginning to thin combined with the feel of the twist moving into my drafted fiber to tell me when I need to adjust.

Because while I have spun silk, I have never spun 100% silk, and the difference between silk and wool is amazing. Wool fibers are rough, scaly things that like to grab each other – so much that if you have owned a significant amount of wool clothing in your life, you know that it can be very hard to stop them from grabbing each other – and connecting and NEVER LETTING GO. It’s almost cute, if you are insane and like to personify fibers. I am and I do.

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Image originally from National Geographic (I think).

Silk doesn’t have those scales like wool, and so I like to think of silk fibers as the cool kids. Yeah, they will go along with the spinningย or whatever, but like.. don’t expect them toย try.ย Perhaps, as the Craftsy article I mentioned earlier suggested, I should have started out with silk hankies instead of combed silk top.

The end result is that I have to pay closer attention to my staple length in order to get that sweet, smooth draw without the silk fibers slipping out back to have a smoke (a.k.a- completely falling apart without notice).

But I really love working with this fiber, not only because it was a fun learning experience, but because it exemplifies those things I love about working with fiber in general – the surprising characters that can be coaxed from the simplest materials, the unending combinations of texture and color and stitch, the meditative level of concentration needed to transform a raw material, and most of all the constant reminder that we are linked by unbreakable fibers to the rest of our world… that our conveniences don’t come just from the store but are ultimately sourced from the complex living web of creatures of which we will always be a part.

Also it’s fun to pet.

-MF

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.ย What the f#$! is a drafting triangle and where do I put it? Do short draw and long draw even apply to me? ย 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 Cycleย 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” ย 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: ย The thing what makes your yarn go.ย 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 goย generallyย 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 postย 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.ย  Imagine the hair on your head. One hair by itself can’t hold up to much pulling. ย 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. ย I started spinning by using my left hand to lead the twist, and ย 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. ย 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.ย 

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.” ย 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 ๐Ÿ™‚ 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!

-MF