Crafty Cross-Training: A Knitter & Crocheter Learns to Spin Yarn

12 January 2022

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Ad description: Cover of the book Sheep, Shepherd & Land, and the words, "THE book about Canadian Wool, by Anna Hunter. Photos by Christel Lanthier. Buy now."

Ad description: The words, "The socks you knit won't last forever, but you can make them last for years and years. Shop now." Also featuring the cover image of the Sock Mending Guide.

A little over seven years ago, I took up spinning. I had taken up crochet and knitting a few years before that while adjusting to my new role as a mother, and desperately needed something creative to do that was easy to pick up and put down between the baby’s naps. Crochet and knitting had opened up a world I hadn’t considered before, one that had eventually led me to take up work writing knitting patterns. I would not have thought even at that time that I’d ever become so immersed in the world of textiles as to try to learn how to make the yarn itself, but the thing about turning a hobby into a job is that it left me wanting a new hobby.

image description: a gravel road, with two farm buildings visible in the distance, partially hidden behind trees

How it started/How it’s going. Left: Corriedale, first attempt at spinning, May 2014. Right: Corriedale, June 2019.

Even though I started spinning just for fun, it didn’t take long to find that spinning was teaching me valuable information for my knitting job, as well. I think of it as crafty cross-training. Spinning uses different muscles (physically and mentally), and develops more skills and knowledge that inform your work (and your play!). I learned about the structure and characteristics of different types of yarn and fibres while I made pretty little skeins of yarn. Each thing I learned about yarn made me want to learn even more, and I’m still excited about how much more there is to know and explore about making yarn.

Image description: Several hanks of cream-coloured yarn on a knitted swatch.
Assorted yarns from assorted sheep, many sourced locally. L-R, top row: Columbia, Est de Laine, Tunis, Polwarth, a ball of Dorset on a knit swatch of the same. L-R, bottom row: Merino Southdown cross, Suffolk, Polypay, Welsh, Texel.

Learning to spin expanded my knowledge of different fibres, and gave me a chance to explore them in further depth. The vocabulary of spinning was my new world, with words and phrases like staple, crimp, drape, twists per inch, ply, singles, short or long draw, combing, carding, worsted, and woollen providing a more detailed way to look at yarn.

Image description: A carder, grey wool locks, a wooden spindle, cream wool locks, and a hank of red handspun yarn.
Blue-Faced Leicester. L-R: Flick carder, grey BFL locks (from Dominion Fleece and Fibre), top whorl spindle (from Danware), white BFL locks (from a friend), gradient yarn spun from dyed top sourced from Frabjous Fibers.
Spinning is a different way of getting to know wool. You get used to feeling how the yarn wants to be spun and knit, working with it instead of trying to make it do things that do not suit it. Of course, reading about yarn construction is one good way to learn about it, but experimenting with it is more fun, more tactile; it is a kinetic sort of learning.
Image description: cream yarn on top of a hand-carder, with roving in foreground and background.
Finn. Top to bottom, displayed on carders: unwashed Finn locks (from Dominion Fleece and Fibre), spun sample of Finn (roving from Custom Woollen Mills), and some Finn combed top.

This increased understanding of yarn and wool has helped me in my design work as well as in my personal projects. I better understand what characteristics to list when requesting yarn for a design. I have a better sense of what fibres I prefer to design with (wool), and which types of yarns I want to use for different purposes and different stitch patterns. When a magazine arranges for me to work with an unfamiliar yarn, the knowledge I have gained through spinning helps me, so that while I am waiting for the yarn to arrive, I can plan ahead for changes that may need to be made to the initial design.

Image description: Against a woven striped background, three handspun yarns in cream and tan.
Icelandic wool, spun from the same batch of locks. L-R: Singles spun from Tog and Thel carded together, Thel only (2-ply), Tog only (2-ply).

Design, like any other form of problem solving, involves troubleshooting when things don’t go according to plan. Spinning gives me more knowledge to bring to solving problems, but has also, in teaching me more about how yarn behaves under different circumstances, reinforced why swatching is such a vital practice. I was a swatcher before I started spinning, but I soon became a better, more scientific, and more enthusiastic swatcher, preventing problems by spending more time getting to know the yarn before starting the project.

Image description: Wool roving and yarns in natural shades, green and blue, a wooden spindle with grey yarn on it, and a brown knitted swatch.
Longwools. L-R: Wensleydale; Cotswold; Romney top in the process of being spun (from Recreated Textiles); Romney knit swatch and finished yarn; green dyed Teeswater locks (from Tin Roof Fibre Studio) and sample yarn; Knit Lincoln swatch with three batches of Lincoln yarn in white, cream, and spun from dyed locks.

On one occasion, I even used my spinning skills quite directly to help me finish a sample. The soft woollen spun yarn that was delightful in the fabric was not going to hold up to being pulled through stitches over and over for seaming. Rather than switching to different yarn from my personal stash for seaming, I simply added twist to a few yards of the remaining yarn, and set it by washing before I used it to seam the sweater.

Image description: Wool roving and spun yarn in a variety of shades from orange to browns to creams, with spindles laid on top of the yarns.
Luxury handspun, with cashmere top displayed above. L-R: camel/silk (from top dyed by Dandelion Fibre Arts), camel/silk (from top dyed by West Coast Colour and Carding), with Russian style support spindle; bison, Red Eri Silk (from the Silk Weaving Studio) with Akha spindle (from Danware); angora/alpaca/merino/Tussah silk (from roving from a friend), yak, merino/silk.

All in all, spinning has brought me far from who I was when I first picked up a crochet hook and some yarn at a craft store, planning to learn to crochet so I could make a few gifts. Back then, I evaluated yarn based on it feeling soft and looking cozy (the bouclé that I had bought did not make it easy to learn stitches). Since then, I’ve learned to look at the label and consider the characteristics of the yarn to decide if it will work with the project I have in mind. I try, with my gradually improving spinning skills, to bring out the best of the wool in the yarn I make, just as I try to ensure that my designs bring out the best in a yarn.

Image description: Wool roving and yarns in natural shades, a wooden spindle with grey yarn on it, and a brown knitted swatch.
Natural colour (above) Gotland. L-R: Coopworth top (from Recreated Textiles), Jacob divided into three colours from the same sheep (all hand-carded, with the medium colour being a blend as there was only a little grey; souvenir brought back for me from a friend’s trip to England), Manx Loaghtan knit swatch and yarn sample (top from a friend), Karakul top, spinning in progress (Recreated Textiles).

What I value most of all though, in what I have learned from spinning, is that it has helped me to enjoy the process of all my crafts more, and made me more confident in trying new crafts. Because so many of my spinning projects have been about exploring a fibre rather than about making a perfect yarn for a perfect project, I have become better at enjoying trying things for the sake of trying them, and I now enjoy the swatching part of the process as much (or even more) than making the project itself.

Image description: Wool roving and yarn in natural shades, a wooden spindle with light brown yarn wrapped around it, and a knitted colourwork swatch in the same natural shades.
Shetland knit swatch with the constituent yarns, the fawn top in the process of being spun.

Spinning has helped me to embrace the spirit of possibilities, of trying something just to see what happens, of making something because I want to make it rather than endlessly justifying creative endeavours (whether to myself or to others) in terms of practicality and productivity. Sometimes the thing I am making is also practical, but the important thing is that it doesn’t have to be so in order to justify the practice of crafting, which can rightly be an end unto itself.

Image description: Wool roving and yarn in natural shades of cream, brown and grey, with a pencil sketch of a sheep on white notebook paper, a knitted colourwork shop in the same colours, and a wooden spindle with light brown yarn wrapped around its shaft.
Shetland sheep sketch by Jessie McKitrick with knit swatch, on a bed of yarn and surrounded by Fawn top in the process of being spun. L-R: White, Moorit, grey, black.

All images credit Jessie McKitrick.

Copyright © Jessie McKitrick except as indicated.

About Jessie McKitrick

Jessie lives in Edmonton in Treaty 6 Territory, where she writes patterns for hand-knitters who can’t resist the lure of texture, cables, and colour in their next sweater, hat, or mitten project. She began to crochet and knit after becoming a mother, teaching herself from library books, and soon found herself designing projects. Feeling a strong need for a job that included creativity, Jessie would go on to submit patterns to various publications who supported and published her work, including Knit Now Magazine, Knit Picks, and Interweave Knits. Collaborations with Ancient Arts Fibre Crafts eventually led to working with the company in the capacity of Design Coordinator. When she’s not working, Jessie practices karate, draws, dabbles in other fibre crafts including spinning, sewing, embroidery and weaving, and enjoys playing board games with her family.

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