Welcome to this handspinning Instructable! My name is Mariya, I’m a fiber artist out of South Carolina. I’ve been a handspinner for about five years, and have a deep passion for all of the fiber arts and the animals that provide us with the fibers we use. Making things is one of my great joys in life, sharing it with eager learners is another of those joys. I hope you enjoy, and feel free to ask any questions you may have along the way.
Animal lovers are always looking for new and creative ways to memorialize their beloved pets. Recently, I was asked to utilize my talents as a fiber artist to create a commemorative skein of yarn for a friend's Chow, Sheiba, from some fur he had saved.
Meanwhile, on a farm not too far away, an alpaca named Ironman was getting a haircut. The freshly shaved fiber was rolled into a bag, ready to be prepared and turned into a piece of fiber art.
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Step 1: Materials and Tools
- Dog fur
- Alpaca fiber (or other blending fiber)
- Wash bucket(s), a sink, or a tub
- Dawn dish soap (or fiber soak/wash)
- Drying rack
- Fiber carding tool
- Drum carder
- Hand carders
- Blending board
- Spinning wheel
- Drop spindle
- Niddy noddy
- Yarn swift
- Ball winder
Step 2: Working With Dog Fur and Alpaca
There's a lot to know about animal fibers, crimp, amplitude, micron, scale, among other characteristics. Most of that, though, is nitty gritty for another day. For working on Sheiba's yarn, the main factors to consider are the slickness and length. I also chose to consider color, matching Sheiba's milk chocolate undercoat with Ironman's dark chocolate fiber to create a yarn that would look like just Sheiba at the end of the process, not Sheiba plus something else. But why not just use Sheiba? That's where the other characteristics come into play.
Most animal fibers, with the exception of silk, have a similar visual appearance under the microscope. Think about all of the hair care commercials on television that show an animation of a scaly strand of hair being smoothed by the product. When spinning yarn, we generally want something like the before in those ads, and less like the after. A fine and smooth fiber will be slippery, while the coarsest fibers can be scratchy. However, having some scale is important because these microscopic layers will grab a hold of one another and help keep the individual fibers together. This ability of the fiber to hold onto its neighbors makes it easier to spin as the fibers will pull one another along into the yarn. Dog fur, even the undercoat, tends to be slick, which makes it harder to spin a secure yarn. Among the fibers of large animals, alpaca is one the slick end of the spectrum, but it has more scale than the dog fur. By combining the two fibers, the alpaca is able to twist around the dog fur and hold onto other alpaca fibers, helping to wrap the dog fur between alpaca fibers into the twist of the yarn and creating a more secure yarn. This same advantage could be found with other less slick fibers, such as wool.
The other important thing to consider with this yarn is the length of the fibers, also known as the staple length. The staple length is the average length of the fibers to be spun. Like I mentioned above, fibers hold onto one another when being spun, and in order for the yarn to grow in length there needs to be a partial overlap of the lengths of fibers. Shorter fibers are harder to work with because there is less length available to be overlapped. This also makes it easier for a yarn being spun to be pulled apart, because it's easier to overshoot the overlap and break the yarn. Sheiba's fur averages about 1-3/4" in length, while Ironman's fiber is almost 4" in length. The effect of blending the two together has a similar effect on length that is had on the slickness, the alpaca fiber brings the dog fur along for the ride to create a secure yarn. Again, this effect can also be achieved with other fibers, including wool.
For this particular yarn, I will be using a 1:1 blend of dog to alpaca. I found that this created the most desirable product and was the easiest to process and spin. Other ratios may work better for other blends or yarns. Now that we have our dog fur and a blending fiber, it's time to prepare the fibers to be processed.
Step 3: Washing the Fiber
In the past, I've used sinks, bathtubs, and old washing machines for washing fiber, but my current setup is the plastic wash bins from the dollar store. Any sink or tub will do, though, just remember that raw fibers will often have small amounts of vegetable matter, dirt, dandruff, and other things it has been exposed to while on the animal that will then end up in your sink. Also, fiber running down the drain is a concern and some sort of strainer or catch should be considered. I've used a custom tulle fabric hammock to contain fiber, but I've also seen fine mesh laundry or lingerie bags used with good results.
The other important factor to washing is the cleansing agent. There are many schools of thought on what cleanser is the best and which is most effective for each fiber, but for an initial wash I use the original blue Dawn dish soap. I have found that it is gentle on the fibers, but efficient enough to clean them thoroughly. If using a specialized cleanser, be sure to make note of any manufacturer instructions for ratios or water temperatures.
- Before adding any fiber, fill the wash bin with a squeeze of soap and warm water. The amount of dish soap is based on how dirty the fiber appears to be, and the water should be enough to fill the bin without it overflowing while adding the fiber.
- Grab some fiber and very gentlyplace it on top of the soapy water, because the air trapped between the fibers will make it want to float. Using a hand or utensil very gently press the fiber so that it is submerged under the water. Air bubbles will leak out from the fiber as the trapped air is replaced with water, keep very gently pressing the fiber into the water until it is thoroughly soaked through with water. Allow to soak, I will usually leave it for about ten minutes, but if the water becomes very dirty very quickly, feel free to shorten this time.
- Drain the dirty water, this can be done after very gently removing the fiber or leaving it in the wash bin during draining. Very gently press or squeeze the fiber to push out as much water from between the fibers as possible. The fiber does not have to be completely dry, but the more water and debris that can be pressed out, the better.
- Keeping the fiber away from running water, refill the wash bin with more soap and fresh water (this is where I like my small wash bins, I can have one prefilled and ready to go). Keep the temperature of the water as close to the temperature of the first wash as possible to avoid shocking the fibers. Place the fiber into the fresh wash and very gently press the fiber to submerge it, getting it thoroughly soaked with water. Allow to soak.
- Repeat these steps until the water is running as clearly as possible. The pattern I will usually use is two washes with soap, then a rinse, a third wash with soap, and rinses until I am satisfied that all of the soap has been removed. This can be adjusted based on how dirty the individual batch of fiber is.
- Any watersafe mesh surface can be used to dry fibers. I have a two-tier hanging mesh sweater drying rack from a thrift store, but I also have a hardware cloth screen that I use when I'm washing outside. The rack should be large enough to along the fiber to be spread out and allow 360* of airflow. Turn, flip, and fluff the fiber as needed to allow maximum airflow throughout the drying process. Depending on environmental factors and the fiber itself, it can take a couple of days or up to a week for the fiber to fully dry, but a gentle fan can be used to accelerate drying time.
Why do I keep emphasizing very gently so heavily? Because it is very important! As I discussed above, fibers have small scales that grab onto one another, this grabbing can also be used to felt the fibers together, making a solid mass of fibers like the felt from the craft store. We do not want this! We want individual fibers that can be drawn out into a yarn. The "formula" for wet felting is soap, changing from hot to cold water, and agitation. When washing fiber, soap is a necessity, so we need to minimize agitation and temperature changes as much as possible during the process. Some light felting may occur that can be picked out, but we want to avoid felting as much as possible.
Step 4: Carding and Blending the Fiber
Before we get too deep into carding and blending, I'd like to define a few terms. These are by no means the only ways to prepare fiber, but are the three most commonly seen and the three I will be referring to:
- Batt - rectangular fiber preparation from a drum carder, fibers are mostly parallel, but not perfect, has a lot of air between the fibers
- Roving - long strip of fiber prepared using a hackle or a drum carder, fibers are more parallel than in a batt, with less air between the fibers
- Top - long strip of fiber prepared mechanically using chemicals and machinery, fibers are completely parallel, very little air between the fibers
To spin a yarn, in most cases, the fiber needs to be prepared in such a way that the individual fibers are running predominantly parallel to one another. This universal direction through the fiber allows the fibers to more easily grab onto and pull along other fibers as they are spun into a yarn. It also affects to the finish of the yarn, a top will have a very smooth finish, while a batt will have a much fluffier and softer appearance. Some preparations are also better suited to blending than others, with batts and rovings being easily created while blending fibers, while a lot of the qualities of a top are determined before the processing are lost during blending because the fibers will be pulled apart.
There are many tools available to prepare fiber for spinning, hand cards, hackles, combs, and blending boards, but today I'm going to be focus on the tool I have available, which is a drum carder. A drum carder consists of one large carding drum and one smaller licker drum, each is covered in carding cloth. The fibers that can be best processed with a particular drum carder is determined by the tines per inch (TPI) of the carding cloth, the higher the TPI, the finer the fibers it can process. I purchased mine second hand and the owner did not recall the exact TPI, but my best estimation is that it is 120 TPI. This TPI is fairly versatile and will process most fibers well, including dog and alpaca.
- Loosen up the fully dried fiber so that the fibers can pass more easily into the drum carder and will lie more easily on the carding drum. There are several styles of pickers available, which use nails or large tines to pull the fibers apart into a fluffy cloud, but all I have right now are my hands. Finger tease and pull the fibers apart, being sure to separate areas that may be lightly felted, so that it begins to resemble a dust bunny in terms of density.
- Separate out equal portions of dog fur and alpaca (recall from Step 1 that I am using a 1:1 ratio), I am doing 1 oz of each fiber for each batt, for a total of 2 oz per batt. Pull out approximately 1/3 of the alpaca fiber and slowly begin feeding it under the licker drum while turning the handle. Make sure that the fiber is being spread as evenly as possible across the width of the carding drum, this will create a good base for the batt. I discovered that this base of alpaca is especially imortant with the dog fur, because starting with dog fur, or allowing too much to form the base of the batt, the harder it is to keep the batt together. The batt that I did start with dog fur was very difficult to lift off the drum and involved a lot of cleaning of individual tufts of fur out from between the tines. So pro-tip: long fibers first.
- Grab approximately 1/3 of the dog fur and slowly feed it under the licker drum. As with the alpaca, make sure that the fiber is spread as evenly as possible across the width of the carding drum. Repeat this process of feeding alternating small amounts of fiber until all of the fiber is on the carder drum. My drum carder has a brush attachment that I am able to use to smooth the batt into the drum, a flicker brush (similar to one hand card or a dog slicker brush) can also be used to smooth the batt.
- Find the seam of the carding cloth, on most carders it is covered with a metal strip that runs across the drum. Run a doffer awl, or similar long, sturdy instrument, along the seam under the fiber and gently pull upwards. Continue until the batt has been pulled apart along the entire seam. The goal is to pull the batt off of the carder drum in one larger piece. Gently grab the batt and pull away from the drum, I find it helpful to use my forearm on one side of the batt so that I have something going all the way across the batt on one side. Turn the handle to advance the drum and continue pulling the batt away from the drum. Yes, the batt will fluff up, this is fine, I like to snuggle it a bit at this point.
- Before doing a second pass on the drum carder, I will pick any large chunks of fiber off of the carder drum and place them with the batt. There will also be a lot of fiber on the licker drum, these are often the shortest of the fibers, or portions of broken fibers. These bits are not ideal for spinning, so I usually do not worry about these fibers unless I really need them or they begin to interfere with carding.
- Fold the batt in half the long way, hotdog style, sandwiching any of the bits that have been pulled off of the carder drum evenly throughout the batt. Feed the folded batt slowly under the licker drum. As we have been doing, making sure not to be deceived by the width of the folded batt and still making sure that the fibers are evenly spread across the drum. Remove the second pass batt from the carder drum and repeat the process for at least one more pass.
The multiple passes of the batt through the carder will more thoroughly blend the fiber together, spreading the short, slick dog fur more evenly throughout the longer, grabbier alpaca. I did three passes in total for each of my three finished batts, but some blends may require more or less to achieve the desired result.
Step 5: Getting Ready to Spin
The process of spinning yarn is the act of putting a twist into a length of overlapping fibers. The force of the twist pushes the fiber together and allows them to hold onto one another, making a yarn that is not easily pulled apart. This is repeated to create the full length of the yarn. And that's all there is to it, easy peasy, off you go!
Not really, there's more to it, but that's the basic concept. A loose bundle of fibers can be easily pulled apart, because the scales on the fibers aren't able to fully grab onto one another and there is little to no friction to prevent separation. When that same bundle of fibers is twisted together, the fibers are able to grab a hold of one another and will be much harder to pull apart. Generally speaking, the more twist and fibers are added to the yarn, the stronger and thicker the yarn will be.
Before spinning the yarn, we want to look at the staple length of the blended fiber batt. Because of the alpaca in this batt the overall staple length is about 4", but we want to think about each section of length in the batt as shorter than that, approximately 3" in length. We want the sections to overlap at both ends, this overlap will keep the yarn going as one continuous strand as each section holds onto the sections in from of and behind it. By thinking about the fibers as being shorter, we are helping to ensure that we maintain that overlap and do not accidentally pull two sections apart. In actual fiber preparation, the fibers are not evenly distributed in increments, but are continuously overlapping throughout the batt. So why do we need to think of the staple or section lengths if everything is overlapping everywhere? Because if we were to pull apart the unspun fiber from two points more than 4" apart, it would be very easy, as opposed to the increased difficulty of pulling from two points less than 3" apart where there is much more overlap and a individual fibers are spanning the full length of the gap.
- There are several ways to spin from batts, but for this yarn I prefer pulling the batts into strips that resemble roving. To do this, I grab a section of fiber at the corner of the batt, approximately 2" wide, and gently pull it away from the rest of the batt. There are ways to use this strip technique to zig zag and form a single, long roving, but I prefer working with shorter lengths and will pull each strip individually.
- Go through and predraft the strips prior to spinning them, which draws them out into thinner, longer strips that gets closer to the diameter of roving that I want to actually spin with. To do this, grab the roving between both hands approximately 3" apart (see what we did there?) and gently pull the fibers into a longer section.
We'll talk more about drafting in the next section, but we are now ready to begin spinning.
Step 6: Spinning the Singles
If you look at a commercial yarn, the big strand of yarn is actually made up several smaller strands, called singles. During the spinning process, the singles are all spun in the same direction, then spun together in a bundle in the opposite direction. This change in direction is what causes the singles to twist towards one another, and spinning them together is called plying. When a single is spun, it is generally spun in a clockwise, or Z twist, direction, so the plying is done in a counterclockwise, or S twist, direction. My way to remember which twist goes in which direction is that if you trace the letter from top to bottom, your finger will fly off of the end of the letter in the direction the spinning direction should go. Another way is to look at a spun yarn, single or plied, and the angle of the fibers will match the angle of the middle portion of the letter (S = \, Z = /).
I will be spinning on my wheel, but I am also an avid drop spindle spinner, so I will try my best to make sure these general techniques are also easily translated to a drop spindle. I will not, however, be explaining in depth specifics of the spinning wheel or drop spindle, so please be sure to review the instructions and techniques for using your specific spinning tool.
Spinning the single consists of drafting, or pulling out, the fiber in a quantity that will produce the desired diameter of the single. Two main factors affect the diameter of the single, the amount of fiber and the amount of twist in the single. More fiber will make a thicker single, and a narrower single requires less fiber. With twist, more twist will create a more dense and narrower single. However, be careful not to use too little twist, which may not hold the fibers together and create an unstable and easily broken single or yarn. It is also possible to overspin yarn, adding too much twist, which will form little unintended corkscrews. Both of these characteristics can be adjusted and utilized to create a unique and interesting yarn.
For my yarn, I am not looking to create a perfect yarn. I want the yarn to reflect the carefree nature of dogs, but without allowing it to become an art yarn. My yarn has thick and thin portions, and that is how I want it. I am also using a low speed whorl on my wheel because it allowed me a speed that I felt comfortable working out the yarn. These are my personal preferences for this specific yarn, please feel free to explore with your yarn to find a style that fits what you want it to be, there is no wrong yarn!
- Prepare the bobbin using a scrap of yarn, preferably in a contrasting color to the fiber you're working with, make a loop at least 24" around to use as the leader yarn. Make a girth hitch around the bobbin or spindle, followed by a second one in the opposite direction. See photos for how to do the hitches. This setup helps to secure the yarn to the bobbin better so that it does not turn willy nilly on the bobbin as yarn is wound on.
- Place the bobbin onto the wheel and connect any drive bands and braking systems as required by the wheel (or lack thereof as required for a drop spindle). Thread the leader yarn through the flyer and out through the orifice (or secured at the hook or notch on a drop spindle).
- Feed a couple of inches of the roving through the loop of the leader yarn. Pull the fiber back to overlap with the roving, so that two joined loops are formed. Spin the wheel (or spindle) in a clockwise, or Z twist, direction, allowing the twist to move up into the fiber. This will twist the loop of fiber together so that it is secured to the leader yarn.
- Draft out a section of fiber, drawing it forward from the roving and towards the spinning wheel. Remembering that 3” working staple length we discussed while preparing the fiber, be careful not to draft the fiber so far that it separates from the roving. While spinning in a clockwise direction, allow the twist generated by the wheel or spindle to move towards the fiber preparation. Always keep a hand in place to pinch the roving and prevent the twist from moving all the way up into the roving.
- Continue spinning in a clockwise direction and drafting out the roving. As the single is spun, remember to be mindful of the distribution of the single as it is taken up onto the bobbin or spindle, and the speed or frequency with which it is taken up. On a wheel, the single should be evenly distributed across the bobbin, and a comfortable take-up speed can be maintained as the width and weight of the bobbin increases by adjusting the braking system. On a drop spindle, be careful not to allow too much weight to develop on the spindle so that suspension or spinning does not become too difficult.
- Joining a new piece of roving, or reattaching a section that has become separated from the yarn, can take practice, but the concept is easy. Allowing the end of the single to stay loose and without twist, lay the end of the roving to be attached so that it overlaps the fibers at the end of the single. Pinch the fiber where the two portions overlap and add a small amount of twist to the area. Gently advance the twist up into the new piece of roving. Continue spinning as before.
- To finish the single, advance the twist as far down the length of the single as possible and allow it to feed onto the bobbin or spindle. If using multiple bobbins or spindles, each single can be set aside while other singles are spun. If needed, the single can be taken off of the bobbin or spindle and stored separately until needed.
Repeat for as many singles as desired. I will be using two for this yarn, but a yarn can be made up of multiple singles of various colors and textures.
Step 7: Plying the Singles
As mentioned earlier, plying is spinning multiple singles together in the opposite direction that the singles were spun. Since we spun the singles in a clockwise Z twist, plying will be done in a counterclockwise S twist. Besides creating a thicker yarn, plying adds strength to the finished yarn, helps to smooth out areas of varying thicknesses, and allows for the creation of a balanced yarn. A balanced yarn does not have stored twist energy, meaning that it will hang loosely without twisting in one direction or another. To check the balance of a yarn, allow a length of yarn, at least 12" long, to hang in an arc. A balanced yarn will hang without moving, but too much or too little twist energy will cause the arc to twist in on itself. A twisting yarn can be corrected by briefly spinning the yarn in the same direction as the arc twists, adding or removing twist from the yarn.
Remember set up the singles so that they will stay separate until they are ready to be plyed. Tangled knots of singles with stored twist energy are one of the most annoying things a spinner can encounter. There are a variety of prefabricated and DIY lazy kates techniques, but since I'm working with only two singles I'll just be using the two bobbin holders on my spinning wheel. These keep the bobbins wide apart, and the singles come from opposite directions toward the orifice.
- Collect the singles to be used for the yarn, and prepare the bobbin or spindle and leader yarn as described above when we discussed spinning the singles.
- Feed half of the singles through the loop of the leader. Match the ends of these singles and the other half of the singles, and tie an overhand knot that secures all of the singles together. This is the technique that I use, alternatively, you could feed all of the ends through and overlap the ends back on themselves to be twisted together like the roving for the single.
- Place fingers between the singles where they attach to the leader yarn and pull away from the leader yarn. Begin spinning in a counterclockwise, or S twist, direction, allowing the twist to pull the singles towards one another. Allow the singles to advance between the fingers separating them so that the twist continues to advance. Plying can often be done more quickly than spinning of the single, so adjust take-up speed or frequency as needed to keep the yarn from spinning too much in the S direction.
- For the first few yards of the yarn, and as frequently as desired throughout, check the balance of the yarn. If it twists, look at the direction of the twist and spin briefly in the same direction to add more (counterclockwise) or remove some (clockwise) twist from the plied yarn.
- Continue allowing the twist to move up the singles to form a yarn.
- Finish the yarn by allowing the twist to advance as far as possible and allow it to feed onto the bobbin or spindle.
Plying is another opportunity to add character to a yarn, a wide array of plying techniques have been used by spinners to create unique art yarns.
Step 8: Unwinding the Yarn
The yarn has been spun and it is complete! Now to take it off the bobbin or spindle to be measure, washed, and, eventually, used to make something.
This is another one of those steps that can be done in a wide variety ways, but the intent is to form a large loop of yarn. Some specialized tools are available for this process, such as umbrella swifts or skein winders, but a simpler tool, like a niddy noddy, or the legs of an upside down chair will work splendidly. The important part of any technique is being able to measure the length of the loop. A fabric tape measure can be used to easily measure the length of one loop on the winding tool. Even with commercial devices, it is important to verify the settings and loop length. Knowing the circumference will make it easy to estimate the full length of the yarn once it is wound off. I'll be unwinding onto an umbrella swift set to 2 yards, so each full circle of yarn will measure 2 yards. If using a niddy noddy, be sure to turn the two end bars so that they are perpendicular to one another. The diagonals created by this perpendicular orientation are what enable it to measure the full length of each round.
Unwinding from the bobbin can use a tensioning device, such as a lazy Kate, or can involve holding the bobbin or spindle by hand. If doing the unwinding by hand, keep a consistent grip on the bobbin or spindle, they do not like to be thrown. On my spinning wheel, I like to loosen or remove the brake band and leave the bobbin on the wheel while unwinding, usually removing the flyer.
Now, what do we call it once it's wound off into one large loop? I call it a skein, but I'll sometimes call it a hank. Many people use those interchangeably for this technique, but it is definitely not a ball or cone. The yarn could also wound off directly into a cake using a ball winder.
- Set up all equipment for the bobbin or spindle and the measuring tool for the yarn to be wound onto.
- Unwind the yarn onto the measuring tool, either by moving the bobbin or spindle around a stationary measuring tool or by spinning the measuring tool so that it pulls the yarn off of a secured bobbin or spindle. Wind the yarn tightly enough that there is not significant slack, but not so loosely that there are arcs hanging below the level of the yarn.
- Continue unwinding until all of the yarn is wound off. If multiple lengths of yarn have been spun, they can be knotted together to form one long yarn, or wound into separate skeins.
- Grab at least four pieces of scrap yarn in a contrasting color, at least 4-6" long. Find one end of the yarn and hold the skein behind the end so that the end is being held with the rest of the skein. Lay a piece of scrap yarn so that it drapes evenly over the skein. Gently separate the loops into two separate groups, which do not need to be exactly even, and run each end of the scrap yarn through the gap to the other side of the skein. Tie loosely at the bottom of the skein. Repeat in at least four locations, though more may be required for longer skeins. These ties will help to keep the skein from tangling.
- Count the number of loops, this can be done after removing the yarn from the measuring tool, but I prefer to do it while the yarn is still on it and under some tension. Multiply the number of loops by the length of the loop, this will give you your total length. For record keeping, I like to subtract the equivalent of one or two loops to account for any unusable ends or incomplete first and last loops. My yarn has 93 loops, but will determine my total yardage off of 91. Total of 91 loops multiplied by 2 yards for a total of 182 yards.
- Remove the skein from the measuring tool.
Place one thumb in each of the opposite ends of the skein. Holding one hand in place, rotate the other hand so that the skein twists. Once the skein is lightly twisted across the entire length, fold the skein in half and tuck one end into the other. This twisted skein helps to keep loose tension on the yarn and preventing it from tangling, especially in storage.
Your yarn is complete! You can use it, wash it, or stow it away for when the perfect project comes along.
Step 9: Enjoy Your New Fuzzy Yarn!
I hope you have enjoyed learning to spin yarn using a combination of dog fur and alpaca fibers. I enjoyed leading you through the process, and hope your yarn has turned out well!
This is my first Instructable, and as such, any feedback and constructive criticism is welcome and greatly appreciated!
Keep an eye on my profile for more Instructables, and look for more content and designs by me as Sometimes Odd on Facebook or @iamsometimesodd on Instagram.
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