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Spinning Merino Wool with a Hand Spindle


Merino wool can be considered a little more difficult to spin than other wool fibers.  This is due to it having (usually) a higher lanolin content than other wools.  The higher the lanolin in the wool, the more the fibers cling to each other, and drafting for hand spinning is not as easily smooth.  A comparison fiber would be that of a llama.  Llama fiber is also very soft, but is drier and has much less cling to the fiber, making it very easy to spin the individual hairs into place.

Merino wool is a relatively short-length fiber, with a staple length that averages from 2 to 4 inches.  In combination with the lanolin content, this wool takes patience to draft effectively.  It is similar in some ways to spinning cotton.  Those interested in spinning cotton can view my Spinning Cotton With A Hand Spindle page, and you will read similar information to what is below.

The care and patience Merino takes to hand spin is rewarded by a very soft, warm, and versatile wool yarn.  The steps shown below may also be used for hand spinning any wool fiber, but I chose Merino as an example because I feel if you can spin Merino well, you can spin just about any fiber.  The Merino shown in the photos is what might be considered grade "B" wool fiber - it has a very high lanolin content, and is of a staple length of about 2 to 3 inches, making it a more "difficult" fiber.  Higher grade Merino fiber will spin much more easily.

When you use a hand spindle to spin wool, you will find that the "hairs" or wool fibers cling to each other.  Especially with "high grease content" wools, that same "cling" means that the drafting of the fibers while spinning has to be even and steady, otherwise the fibers will clump together too much.

The first issue to consider is the raw fiber to be spun.  With this page, I will show Merino wool that has been washed and then lightly carded.  Merino is also commercially available as a roving.  A roving can be separated into strips of fiber, which then can be spun as a strip.  In that sense, roving is slightly easier to spin as the spinner can use a strip of fiber as wide or narrow as they choose.  I personally prefer to use lightly carded fiber, as I find the wool is softer prior to it being heavily processed by a more complete carding to make a roving.

Below is a photo which shows two wool cards, raw Merino fiber, and a hand spindle.



A close-up of the fiber shows that the lanolin content, or the quality of the fiber, will allow clumps to form.  These should be removed as the spinner spins, but it's really a personal choice.  A very smooth, well-spun "single" strand of yarn will have no clumps and will be evenly spun.  That would be considered the goal.  My own homespun Merino is never quite like that as I allow some clumps to remain, personally liking the slight variations in the wool yarn.  



The first step, shown below, is to place the hook of the spindle into the end of the wool and start twisting the spindle in a clockwise motion.  This starts what is called a "leader".  When it is about 12 inches long, this starter yarn is tied around the spindle shaft below the whorl, the yarn is brought up over the edge of the whorl, and the yarn gets looped around the hook two or three times. The "open" end of the yarn is the end that has not yet been twisted.  Additional fiber is laid over the top of the open end of the yarn, overlapping by enough for the fibers to grab evenly and twisting is continued.



Once the lead yarn is attached to the spindle, wrap the yarn end once or twice around the hook to hold the yarn in place as you spin.  Spinning is continuous, in a clockwise motion, to continue to twist the fiber into yarn.  I personally hold the spindle in my right hand, and simply turn the spindle toward me while drafting the fiber with my left hand.  This is not using the spindle as a "drop" spindle, but I feel this gives me more control over the dimension or diameter of the yarn.  

What can happen with Merino wool or other similar high-lanolin fibers is that the yarn can quickly become what is called "thick and thin" if the drafting is not done evenly.  This is shown in the photo below.  The example shows one area where the fibers have slightly clumped together, and another area just to the right of it that is too thin and the twist is forming a kink.  The fiber closest to the spindle hook is the most evenly spun.  This yarn is being spun at fingering weight.  The yarn can easily be used with the thickness variations that are shown below, in fact, it will give the finished item that "homespun" look, however, it is not a "perfect" single.  The weakest area is where the kink is, not only because it is thin, but also because the higher amount of twist will allow the yarn to break more easily.



Once a yarn is begun, and you are comfortable with drafting, the spindle can be used in the "drop position".  This means that the spindle is spun clockwise with the hand, let go of, and allowed to spin suspended in the air, while the spinner drafts the fibers.  When the spinner needs to readjust the draft area (called the drafting triangle, and is the area where the open non-spun fiber meets the twisted yarn)  the spindle is "parked" by stopping it from spinning and placed under an arm or otherwise held still until spinning resumes.  The spindle shouldn't be allowed to unwind, or turn in the counterclockwise direction, as this untwists the yarn.  



Merino, like other short-staple fibers, needs more twist in the yarn than longer fibers, and it's an individual development for each spinner as to how they start and stop the spindle in the drop position.  The yarn should be moderately to almost-tightly twisted, keeping in mind that Merino will "puff up" a bit if the twist is allowed to loosen.  If the twist is too loose, the yarn will break when the spindle is suspended in the air.  As the spinner spins more yarn, the yarn is moved down to the shaft of the spindle (wrapping it clockwise around the shaft) and stored there until it is removed to a nostepinde (a ball winder) or cone for future use or for plying.  


The method of "draft, spin, park"  is the same whether you are using a top whorl or a bottom whorl spindle.  Below is a photo of how a bottom whorl spindle is set up for spinning.  The lead thread is wrapped around the stem of the spindle, then down below the whorl and around the stem, and then back up to the top of the shaft.  It is held in place with a half-hitch if there is no hook on the top of the spindle.  The half-hitch acts the same as a hook, allowing the yarn to gain twist.  As shown below, some bottom whorl spindles have hooks on the top which eliminate the need for the half-hitch knot.



The most important factor in either method is controlling the draft of the fibers.  Assuming the spinner is right-handed, the left hand controls the draft.  Using the thumb and index finger, pinch the fiber that is loose where it joins the already-twisted yarn.  Let up on the pinch just enough to let the twist of the yarn run up into the fibers.  You will see a small triangle form where the fibers from both sides of the loose fiber are pulled together joining into the twist and creating the yarn.  This is called the "drafting triangle", as described above.  It is in this area that the fibers either flow smoothly or get caught up in a bunch, and it is the amount and timing of the pinch that determines what happens.  With practice, it becomes an automatic action to draft effectively.

The considerations regarding the staple length, the lanolin content, and the fine-ness of Merino wool fiber will enable the spinner to accurately "feel" when the yarn is at the right balance and has been spun evenly.  To check for that balance in the yarn, hold the drafting triangle in the left hand, the spindle in the right with the spun yarn on it, and gradually move your two hands together, allowing the spun yarn to twist together.  If it twists evenly without kinks, it can be referred to as balanced.  The directions above also pertain to any fiber.

With Merino wool, or other wool fibers, keep in mind that after wrapping the yarn into a skein and setting the twist, some areas of the yarn will relax or loosen more than others, depending on how evenly the yarn was spun.




Happy Spinning!



Three small skeins of hand-spun fingering weight Merino




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