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Drop spindle troubleshooting

It’s been great to see so many people discover the joy of spinning yarn on a drop spindle. A lot of questions come up along the way, including ones on how to deal with problems that come up. Here are some issues that new spinners run into as they work with the top-whorl drop spindle, and my recommendations on how to fix them.

Try putting enough spin in your single so that its angle of twist points somewhere between 1 and 2 o’clock, or between 10 and 11 o’clock.

–Fibers drift apart or won’t hold together after I spin them: This usually means that there isn’t enough twist to hold your fibers together. As you feed the fiber into the twist, be sure that your fingers aren’t stopping or interrupting the spin motion; sometimes, as you’re pulling your fingers away, you actually pluck the string, and that will slow down your spindle. Look at your spun single: if you compared the angle of the twist to a clock, try making the angle of twist point to somewhere between 1 and 2 (or between 10 and 11 if you spin counterclockwise).

Also, the amount of twist you need varies on the fiber you’re working with. Merino generally needs less twist than alpaca to hold together well, and short fibers need more twist, and sooner, than longer fibers do. And, make sure that you are not removing twist as you wind the single onto the shaft of your spindle. An overhand motion will add—or take away—twist, so check your technique there. And, thin singles need more twist than thick singles do.

–Fibers drift apart or won’t hold together AS I spin them: This means that the twist isn’t getting into the fibers before the weight of the spindle pulls the fibers apart. The fibers should be fully supported by your fiber hand until they have passed through the drafting zone and entered the twist. Also, don’t pre-draft long lengths of thin slivers of fiber; in fact; it’s better to just loosen the fibers a bit rather than pre-draft them.

Pigtails: way too much twist!

–Single kinks up in places: This is a sign of a couple of issues—too much twist, and thick and thin spots in your single. Twist moves to the thin spots, and away from the thick spots, so the thick spots will look underspun, and the thin spots will twist back on themselves. Spinning an even single just takes practice, and keeping your fiber supply loose but controlled will help.

Overspun yarn will look overspun along the entire length of the single. You’ll get little pigtails and some hard spots, and your single may even break at the thin spots. If it’s just been overspun along a few yards, you can secure your spindle and unroll the single out for a few yards, then draft out some unspun fiber from your fiber supply; this will give the extra twist some place to go. Or, you can just let your spindle go and let it unspin until the pigtails go away. If you have overspun quite a lot of your single, you can secure that spindle and use another spindle spun SLOWLY in the opposite direction to take out some of the extra twist.

–I want to make my single finer/thicker: This is all about how much fiber is released into the twist at a time. Less fiber = finer single; more fiber = thicker single. It can be a little tricky to see how much fiber you actually need, and it’s probably less than you think. To see how much you really need, deconstruct a yarn that you want to mimic that is made of fiber similar to what you’re spinning: pull apart the singles, then untwist a single and look very closely at how many fibers are twisted together in it. Then, take a little bit of fiber and practice drafting out a similar amount. Remember that the amount of twist needed will change as the diameter of your single changes: thick singles need less twist, and finer singles need more twist.

Pre-drafting can help create a thin spot in your single.

–I have thick and thin spots in my single: This is usually caused by uneven drafting. The advice is normally to loosen your fibers before you spin so that they’ll pull smoothly through your hands and into the twist. However, pre-drafting your fiber has to be done carefully: if you pull too hard, you can create thick and thin spots in your fiber supply, which then create thick and thin spots in your single. If you pre-draft, pull until you feel the first ‘give.’ Alternatively, you can loosen the fibers in a braid, for example, by gently spreading the fibers out across the width of the braid, rather than along its length.

Tape a little reminder of your spin direction onto your spindle.

–I get confused as to which way to spin: It is important to always spin the single in the same direction, and spin all the singles that will be plied together in the same direction. (Yes, there are exceptions, but that’s for later.) Try putting a small piece of masking tape on the whorl with an arrow drawn on it that points in the chosen direction, and then use a bigger spindle to ply with, marked to spin in the opposite direction with its own piece of tape.

–My spindle stops spinning the right way and starts to unspin before I want it to: This could mean that you have a lighter spindle than you need for the thickness of single you’re spinning. Your spindle should spin for several seconds before stopping and then unspinning. Try spinning a thinner single to test this. If that fixes the problem, then get a heavier spindle to spin the thicker single you were aiming for.

–When I add new fiber, the single always comes apart at the join: This can happen for three reasons: either the fibers aren’t overlapped a sufficient amount, or they weren’t allowed to ‘mesh’ together enough, or the single is overly thick at the join and the twist jumps over it to thinner sections. 

Overlap splayed-out fibers at least 1-2 inches to make a strong join.

Fibers should overlap at least 1 to 2 inches in a join—more if the fibers are short or slippery, while less may be sufficient for longer, ‘grabbier’ fibers. And, it’s important to really splay out the ends of the joining fibers, so they can grab on and mesh together easier. Finally, allow the joining fibers to taper into the end of the single—if both ends are as thick as the single, then you get a thick spot, which may cause the twist to distribute around the join rather than in it.

–My single breaks while I’m spinning: This can be due to a couple of things: overspinning, which puts too much stress on a thin spot, or spinning with a spindle that’s too heavy for the single you’re making. Look at your single; if there are thick and thin spots throughout, then the breakage will decrease as you become able to spin a consistent single. If you can also switch to a lighter spindle, try that, too; you may find that using a lighter spindle will help prevent overspinning.

A broken single doesn’t mean the end of your yarn, however. Check out this video (fast forward to 10:58 to get right to that section) to see how to re-join a broken single back into your plying.

–My single breaks while I’m plying: Make sure that your singles are able to unwind smoothly from the bobbins or ball on which you wound them. You want some resistance, to keep your singles from tangling, but not so much that there is too much tension on them.

Uneven tension when plying puts strain on the straight single

Also, you’re likely using a heavier spindle for your plying. Check your plied yarn: is one single spiraling around the other, while the other is nearly straight? If so, the tension is uneven between the singles, which means the straight single is taking the weight of the spindle. If it’s also thick and thin, then you have to be extra careful. Adjust your grip on the singles so that they feed at even tension into the ply twist, and if you can, shorten the lengths of yarn that you ply before winding it onto the spindle.

–My spindle wobbles a lot as I spin: Practice your method of spinning the spindle without spinning yarn by tying a length of finished yarn onto the hook. Practice making a smooth ‘snap’ without making the spindle swing.  While you’re doing this, try an especially smooth spin, and see how the hook and yarn are positioned over the spindle shaft. If your hook gets bent out of place, the yarn won’t center properly along the same line as the shaft, and this can cause a wobble.

Also, as you wind the spun fiber onto the spindle shaft, try positioning the cop in different places on the spindle, trying first to wind the single directly under the whorl. As the cop accumulates more spun fiber, its weight changes how the spindle spins. Try also different shapes of cop—a ball versus a ‘hive’ shape.

What other issues are you having with your drop spindle spinning? Send me an email, and I’ll help you figure it out. And, please visit for the rest of my drop spindle videos (and other useful stuff). Also, the Summer 2019 issue of PLY Magazine is devoted to the suspended spindle (yep, drop spindles), so check it out.

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What’s the best fiber for beginning spinners?

With so many wonderful fibers available to handspinners now, a frequent question I get is: what wool or fiber is best for a beginner?

As a new spinner, your first goal is to spin a consistent single; that is, a single with few variations in diameter and the amount of twist throughout its length. To do that, we want to smooth out the flow of fiber through the hands, and minimize starting and stopping.

The fiber we have available to spin has a few characteristics, and each characteristic impacts the ease of spinning.

Fiber preparation: Fiber is most often available as combed top (a fiber mass which has been combed, resulting in aligned fibers of the same length), roving (similar to top, though fibers of different lengths can be included), carded batts, rolags, and punis (carded and rolled masses of fiber), or loose locks.

Spinning is easier when your fibers are not clumped or compacted and can flow evenly through your hands.

Combed top, especially dyed top, becomes compressed in the dyeing and processing. It can help to open the fiber up by pulling on it *slightly*; that is, just enough so that they move, but not so much that you pull tufts out; this can contribute to thick and thin areas in your single.

loosen up dyed top for easier spinning

Batts, rolags, and punis can come in amounts that are hard to hold onto, or can get bound up when fiber is pulled from the center. They may be easier to handle if you unroll them and pull off strips. Rolags and punis look like smaller batts. They are sometimes rolled tightly for a purpose, but if the fibers won’t pull easily from the center, you can try unrolling the mass and rerolling it looser.

unroll batts for easier spinning

Loose locks are washed and processed so that the locks stay together. To spin a smooth yarn, you can gently pull the locks apart and create a ‘cloud’ of fibers, grabbing small handfuls at a time.

separate loose locks for easier spinning

Fiber length (staple length): Fibers can come in lengths anywhere from 1-inch cotton or yak fibers to flax and longwool that reach 12 inches or longer.

Spinning is easier when you work with fiber lengths that are not too short, and not too long.

Very short fibers—under 2”—require twist to enter the mass right away so that they don’t drift apart, and having enough time to draft and treadle on a wheel can be tough for a beginner. On a drop spindle, short fibers are challenging for the same reason; twist needs to enter the mass quickly, before the weight of the spindle pulls them apart. Once you’re comfortable with mid-length fibers, try short fibers, using the fastest whorl you have. For a hand spindle, try these fibers with a supported spindle instead of a drop spindle.

Conversely, very long fibers—5 inches or more—also require some special handling. You have to keep your hands far enough apart (if you’re doing a worsted draft) so that your fiber hand isn’t holding onto the fibers and preventing the fibers from feeding into the twist. However, you still have to control how much fiber goes into the drafting triangle or your entire mass of fiber can end up in there.

You have a few more options with long fibers:

  • You can cut them to more manageable lengths
  • Once you’re comfortable with midlength fibers, you can learn to spin over the fold.

Fiber texture: As a beginner, you’ll want fibers that pass easily through your fingers, but not so easily that they’re hard to control.

Spinning is easier when you choose fibers of moderate texture: not too slippery, not too fine, not too delicate, not too coarse. 

Besides being very long, silk top can be quite slippery. Camelid fibers, such as alpaca, can also be slippery. Very fine and delicate fibers, such as qiviut, yak, or rabbit, while also being short, can mat or felt in your hand, especially if your hands get hot and sweaty, preventing you from drafting it smoothly. Very fine (19 micron or finer) merino wool would also fall in this category. Very coarse fibers may be easily overspun, and you’ll have rope instead of yarn.

Higher micron (21+) merino is widely available as combed top. I wouldn’t recommend it for a very new beginner, because it is still a fine fiber and can mat and stick to itself easily. But, after spinning a pound or so of easier materials, you could try this merino next.

Fiber amount: Too much, and you drop it, or can’t get your fingers around it to manipulate it properly. Not enough, and you’ll be stopping frequently to join a new fiber supply.

Spinning is easier when the amount of fiber in your hand is comfortable to work with.

This is probably the most arbitrary and personalized choice, so this will take some experimentation on your part. The right amount allows you draft properly and easily, allows the fiber to flow through your hands, and is enough so that you don’t have to stop and join a new fiber supply so often that you can’t find your rhythm.

There are a few ways to manage your fiber supply:

–Pull off strips from your batts or top/roving. Pull off strips that are thicker than the single you want to make, and thick enough so that it won’t fall apart in your hands. A strip that is too thin limits your ability to draft properly, too, so experiment with what feels right, and remember that what feels right will change as you practice.

Split braids for easier spinning

–Hold your fiber supply close to your drafting hand. A distaff is a pole or dowel with a basket or cage at one end. The tool was stuck through the spinner’s belt, and the fiber mass was placed in the basket and fed down to the spinner’s hands. This kept the fiber supply close and oriented so that the fibers could be pulled and drafted easily. You don’t see distaffs in use much today; instead, you can wrap strips of fiber around the wrist of your drafting hand, or keep your fiber in a small bag hanging from your wrist (not too heavy so that you don’t strain your wrist). You could try a hanging basket, too. Whatever you try, the key will be in making sure you don’t have to pull on the fibers too much, and that they don’t fall out of your container.

–Have your fiber prepped and ready to grab. If you’re working with loose locks, have a big pile of them fluffed and separated and ready to go, so you don’t have to stop so much.

So, what does that leave us with? My recommendation is to choose medium to medium-fine wools with staple length of two to four inches, and prepped so that the fibers are loose yet organized.  CVM, Columbia, Polwarth, Shetland, and Corriedale wools are great breeds to look for and should not be too expensive or hard to find. If the fiber is in combed top or roving and seems slippery to work with, try carding it into a batt or a rolag, roll it up loosely, and then pull fibers from the center.

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Drop spindle #4: Making a skein and setting the twist

This is video #4 in a series of four videos on how to spin with a drop spindle. In this video, I show you how to make a skein with your plied yarn, and we discuss how to ‘set the twist’ in the yarn and why that’s important. There are also resources for further learning about spinning with a drop spindle.

Key points to remember:

  • Be gentle while setting the twist in your yarn. Too much motion while the yarn is soaking will start the felting process in your yarn
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Drop spindle #3: How to make your own lazy Kate, and how to ply two singles together

This is video #3 in a series of four videos on how to spin with a drop spindle. In this video, I’ll show you how to make your own lazy kate, and how to use the drop spindle to ply your singles together. We cover how to set up for plying, step-by-step explanations and demonstration of how to ply, how to get started again when one of your singles breaks.

Key points to remember:

  • Make sure the bobbins are oriented to pull the singles off in the same direction
  • Ply twist goes the opposite direction of your singles
Drop spindle video #3: how to ply on a drop spindle
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How to spin with a drop spindle: Video tutorial #1

Here’s video #1 in a series of four videos on how to spin with a top-whorl drop spindle. In this video we cover the basics, step by step:

  • how to get started without a leader
  • how to work with two different types of wool preparations,
  • a detailed explanation and demonstration of the spin/park/pinch/draft method

Key points to remember:

  • Spin, Park, Pinch, Draft
  • Pick one direction to spin in, and don’t change it. (You can put a little piece of masking tape with an arrow drawn in the correct direction if that will help; just remember you have to change it to the other direction when you ply)
  • Keep an eye on the spinning of your spindle. You do not want it to stop spinning and then spin in the opposite direction, taking the twist out of your fiber.

The amount of twist you need in a single that will be plied depends on how much fiber is in the single. A thick single doesn’t need as much twist as a thin single does. A thin single needs a lot of twist or the fibers will drift apart. So, after you’ve spun a little bit, break a length of the single off and let it twist back on itself RIGHT AFTER you spin it, you can see how much ply twist you need, and you can see if the final yarn feels like what you were looking for. (This doesn’t work if you let the single sit for a while before breaking off that test piece.) In a thick single, there’s more fiber, so less twist is needed, and it’s really easy to over-spin. You need just enough twist so that the fibers don’t drift apart.

Drop spindle video #1