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Turning Fiber Into Yarn: The Art Of Spinning

All of the fantastic fiber you get from animals on your homestead will become beautiful yarns, batting and stuffing. At first, when you look at the wool fleece, or hair right off the animal you may wonder how that dirty, messy bundle of wool/hair will ever become yarn, but it will. First things first:

Prepare the Fleece

We’ll concentrate on fleece for this piece, because that is the most common fiber turned into yarn, and the fiber that produces the most per shearing. You will have to learn the right ways to shear the animal you are using, but once you have the fleece in front of you, it is time to make it ready for spinning.

Skirting:  Skirting is the term used for the process of getting rid of the edges of the fleece that have the most dirt, waste material, and which are usually ragged from cutting. Your fleece will normally be in one solid piece (at least once you have practiced and gotten the hang of shearing). Lay it flat on a table, and cut off one to two inches all around the fleece.

Clean it Up:  Fleece, especially from sheep, is VERY oily. You will feel it every time you pat your sheep, or when you handle the fleece as it first comes off the animal. (By the way, I can think of no better reason for adding sheep to your homestead than the soft hands you will get from touching all of that natural lanolin you would pay a fortune for in the store.) You will, however, need to wash the dirt and grime out of the fleece, and get rid of most of the lanolin.

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You will need a large pail, kettle, or you can use the washing machine. (However, do not actually “wash” your fleece in the machine – the agitators will destroy the fleece.) Place fleece in net bags, the kind you find at your local store for laundry, and press that into a bucket or tub full of cool water containing laundry detergent or dish soap. Soak for about 20 minutes, gently pressing the wool into the water to easily agitate it with your hands.

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Remove the bag of wool, pour out the soapy water and fill the bucket, pail or machine with cold water. Put bag back into the water and swish gently with your hands to rinse the soap out. Repeat the rinse cycle several times until the soap is gone. Gently squeeze water out of the bag of wool. Open the bag and spread the fleece out to dry. If you leave it in the bag, the center will have a hard time drying out, and may develop mold.

Carding:  You will need a hand carder, which resembles a dog slicker brush but is made to work fleece. Take a handful of the fleece off of the washed wool and hold it firmly. With the brush in the other hand, swipe the fleece with the carder. The result will amaze you. Instead of the tight, bunched-up curls, that wool will transform into fluffy, beautiful wool, and you are ready to spin.

Drop or Roll

There are two types of spinning appliances you can use to create yarn: drop spindles and spinning wheel. Just about everyone knows what a spinning wheel is. Children learn about the spinning wheel that Cinderella pricked her finger on in their bedtime stories. Few people are familiar with the drop spindle; however, the drop spindle is perhaps the easiest for beginning spinners to get the hang of. Both wheel and spindle work on the same principle, and their end result is the same – a tightly twisted strand of wool that transforms into yarn.

Choosing a Drop Spindle

Look for a lightweight, well-balanced spindle. Drop spindles come in all shapes and sizes, but heavier ones will be harder for you to learn and handle. Start off with some previously spun yarn (or buy a small skein of yarn from your local store to get you started). Tie off a two-to-three-inch piece of yarn to the shaft of the drop spindle. Follow the directions on the type of spindle you have to load the rest of the yarn and prepare it for spinning.  There are several styles – bottom whorl, top whorl, hooked, grooved, and others – so it is impossible to accurately deliver the proper loading method for each one in one place.

Once you have your spindle loaded with the leader piece, grasp a small piece of wool in the palm of your hand, and wrap the tip of it around the end of the lead yarn. Let the spindle hang from the yarn and spin it so that the yarn and wool twist together. Pull the wool and spin the spindle as it turns into a fine strand of yarn before your eyes. As the length of the yarn grows you can wrap the excess around the spindle and continue making more until the spindle is full and you have a skein of yarn from your very own fiber animals.

Spinning wheels work in the same basic way, but are a little more complicated to operate. Each style comes with its own instructions for hooking up the leader and making the wheel turn, but the process of twisting a piece of wool onto the end of the leader and spinning it into a fine strand is the same with the wheel as it is with the spindle. For more information on the wonderful craft of spinning, visit the website The Joy of Handspinning. You’ll find instruction videos and information on all aspects of handspinning fiber into yarn.
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