How to Spin Yarn & Keep Your Loved Ones Clothed and Warm

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Spinning is one of those skills that, once ubiquitous, has become something of a novelty. In the past, spinning yarn with a drop spindle or spinning wheel was as common as cooking dinner.

Everybody used to spin yarn.

If you are alive today, you have ancestors who spun.

yarn in many colors; spinning your own yarn

Whatever happened to yarn spinning, anyway?

The industrial revolution happened, that’s what. It pretty much obliterated spinning as a cottage industry. Spinning dropped out of the public consciousness as a result.

This is particularly evident in the sheer number of film adaptations of fairy tales that don’t get it right. (By the way, Princess Aurora, aka Sleeping Beauty, that was the distaff, not the spindle!)

Spinning yarn saw a slight revival beginning in the 1970s when more people saw the merits of spinning one’s yarn. My mom was one of these, and I learned from her.

Today, thousands of people spin. In fact, most major metropolitan areas in the United States have a spinning guild. Use this spinning guild directory to find one near you.

Why should I care about how to make yarn?

There are many reasons to know spinning, including, of course, the preparedness reason. Here are a few of them.

  • It develops an appreciation for the ease we come by our clothing in the modern world. Before the invention of mechanized spinning machines, clothing represented an amazing amount of wealth. Not because of the cost of materials and equipment, mind you, but because of the time required to produce it. A seamstress was, and is, an artist in her own right.
  • Adding spinning to one’s repertoire gives you the ability to make clothing in an emergency. For example, let’s say a situation arose where it’s impossible to obtain blankets or mittens, but your neighbor happens to have a flock of sheep. If you spin yarn, you have the skill set necessary to keep your family warm during the winter. Is that a long shot? Maybe. Maybe not.
  • Often the items you make yourself are superior in quality to anything found in the store. For example, the wool mittens I made my son two years ago are so warm that, after playing in the snow for forty-five minutes, every part of him is chilly except for his hands, which sweat. Likewise, I made my middle child a woolen bodysuit/coat when he was a baby, and everyone who has ever seen it gushes over how adorable it is.
  • There is the personal satisfaction that comes from producing tangible, usable items out of mere fluff. In addition, knitting items from the yarn you’ve spun yourself is addictive.

Everyone should at least dabble in hand spinning.

What can I use to spin yarn?

At the most basic level, you need two items: a device to spin the yarn on and a product to spin into yarn.

When I was fifteen, I spun my first yarn out of the combings from my family’s fluffy Shetland sheepdog, using my mom’s spindle. Yes, you can spin yarn from dog hair. It’s really a thing.

A couple of months later, when my family moved overseas and my mother’s other equipment was in storage, I threw together a working spindle using the top of a cottage cheese container and a chopstick. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find knitting needles, so I used sharpened pencils. (Not recommended, but doable.) I made a very fluffy scarf.

Some folks have used discarded CDs and a pencil. The point is, if you’re determined to spin, you can figure out a way.

But, if you’re not confident in utilizing everyday household items in this fashion, that’s okay. Spinning yarn is a hobby that allows you to spend as much or as little money as you want.

How much does it cost to get started?

Avid spinners may eventually invest in a spinning wheel, the biggest and most expensive piece of equipment. These can run anywhere from $300-$1200.

However, for a beginner, I recommend buying a basic drop spindle; they’ll only set you back about $15. You’ll also need some com

mercially prepared fiber, known as “roving” or “top.” Handspinners typically spin plant or animal fibers.

Until you are sure that you enjoy spinning, I would discourage you from spending more than $30. If you decide wish to continue, than progressing to a spinning wheel is a more efficient use of spinning time.

Other items, mainly to prepare the fiber for spinning, are also available, but that’s a subject for another article.

What if I want to spin yarn from fleece?

If you want to try spinning wool from actual raw sheep’s fleece, the very cheapest way to get it is to make friends with a kid with a 4H lamb. You could also search for local sheep farmers in your area and contact them about purchasing a fleece directly – expect to pay in the neighborhood of $40-$50 for a decent fleece.

This also allows you to choose the color you want. Not all sheep are white; they have a variety of beautiful colors other than the typical commercial white, such as dark brown, black, and even silver. In addition, the breed of sheep influences the texture of the wool.

If you start from fleece, you’ll need to prepare it, which involves scouring and carding.

Preparing the Fleece

The methods for washing fleece, called scouring, are many and varied. Experiment to find the method you prefer. The general process I use is both soap and water-intensive and involves:

  • soaking the fleece in cold water about 20 minutes,
  • running it through a spin cycle in the washing machine to remove the dirty water,
  • and running it through several rounds of hot water and dishsoap (I use Dawn) to melt the lanolin.*

* Don’t wash out the lanolin if you want to make something that’s waterproof.

Carding wool straightens the fibers and makes the spinning proceed more smoothly. Carding combs work well for this. You’ll “charge” the combs, which is putting strips of wool on them, then drag the cards over the fibers until the desired effect is achieved. The wool is then rolled off.

image: Beth Buck holding two carding combs to prepare orange wool to spin yarn
Carding combs
image: charging a carding comb by placing strips of orange wool on it
Charging the cards
image: woman using to carding combs to card orange wool
Carding wool
image: orange wool rolled off of a carding comb
Rolling off the wool from the carding comb

Also, not every fleece is a good option for handspinning. This article gives some tips on how to select fleece and prepare it. In the meantime, you can’t go wrong with roving for wool spinning.

How To Spin Yarn

As in everything the best way to start spinning is to jump right in and do it. Of course, it is best to learn from another person, one-on-one, sitting in the room with you, but not everyone has another spinner readily available.

For this reason, YouTube tutorials are a godsend. For example, a quick search for “how to spin with a drop spindle” turns up many possibilities.

Another option is to participate in historical re-enactments. This is a great way to learn many different skills that have fallen out of favor.

However, the following steps should give you a good idea of what’s involved with hand spinning, specifically.

How To Spin Yarn

  1. Predraft the roving

    Holding your hands several inches apart gently thin the fiber. This makes for a nicer yarn. *Predrafting isn’t necessary. Try with and without and see which process and results you prefer.
    image: Beth Buck hands predrafting to spin wool

  2. Attach to the spindle hook a section of fiber about half the thickness you want your yarn to be.

    The fiber should remain connected to the rest of the fiber. Let the spindle hang freely.
    image: woman in black shirt and tan pants holding a drop spindle to spin yarn

  3. Spin the spindle.

    Allow the twist to build until it stops but catch it before it begins turning in the opposite direction, which would unwind the twist.
    image: woman holding drop spindle while drafting wool

  4. Now spin and draft the fiber.

    image: woman spinning and drafting wool on a drop spindle

  5. Before the spindle touches the floor, snugly wind the twisted fiber, now yarn, onto the shaft of the spindle.

    If the yarn begins to separate, twist it more.
    image: woman holding drop spindle with yarn wound around shaft, comparing amount of wool spun to that on spinning wheel

  6. Leave a small length to wrap back up around the hook.

    Continue to spin and draft.

You’ll notice that it is an activity that requires the coordinated use of both hands. It can be tricky to get both hands to work together at first but don’t be discouraged. I promise you’ll figure it out and soon! My oldest learned how to spin on my spinning wheel when he was four. So if a child can do it, you can do it, too.

Other good spinning resources can be found from the Joy of Handspinning and Interweave Press.

P.S. Do you have a secret stash of yarn hidden somewhere in your home? It’s okay. We won’t tell anyone. Instead, check out Three Thrifty Ways To Increase Your Yarn Stash.

What about you? How did you get started spinning your yarn?

This post was originally published on March 10, 2015, and has been updated.

9 thoughts on “How to Spin Yarn & Keep Your Loved Ones Clothed and Warm”

  1. When I was about ten I met a lady who spun yarn. She let me try a drop spindle she had. She even let me try her spinning wheel. I think I could have really gotten the hang of it. I loved it. Maybe someday I can try it again.

  2. I belong to a medieval re – enactment group. It’s funny when I think about all the things I have learned and actively done in the group, and how it all works within the “prepper” mindset as well. I know how to spin my own wool, as well as prepare it from the fleece. I know how to weave it too, and how to felt it to create virtually waterproof gear. Or to knit it without needles (naalbinding). I know how to sew, and make my own clothes without a fabric store pattern. I know how to make shoes and coats for my family. Not like you can pop into Walmart for this type of stuff after all.

    I could go on and on, but one thing I can suggest to you and your readers is to look outside the box for info. Backpacking websites give great info on making your own MRE’s, and how to pack light and tight for bug out situations. Websites on depression era cooking or ethnic cooking have given me great meals for dirt cheap (and I’m not chowing down on meal worms to do it – check out dosa recipies for example, or pemmican). Homesteading websites have given me insight into living off the grid, and medieval research groups, or civil war groups give great tips to live without modern convenience – in fact, some of them have classes that could help your readers learn a barter-able skill. That’s where I learned to weave after all.

  3. Jennifer – Make someday today! You’ll be glad you did.

    Susan – All true! I am definitely of the opinion that it is a mistake to think these older skills have no practical value in today’s world. During the second World War, reviving these sorts of skills is what saved people! In fact, the Ashford spinning wheel company got its start during that time. With the dearth of wool or flax to make clothing, many people resorted to making their clothing out of nettle fiber.

    I am going to grow nettles in my garden this year to see if I can replicate the process.

  4. Just wondering because I very new at this. What were you doing with your fingers are you attached the leader and started spinning?

  5. Allison – the leader is basically two pieces of crochet cotton tied together in parallel. When I begin spinning, I separate the two strands and place a small amount of fiber between them. When the flyer begins to spin, it puts twist into the leader, and by extension the fiber itself. I hope that answers your question!

  6. Grad school saw me learn how to weave and spin! Adding those skills to my crochet and knitting tool bag has made certain my hands are always busy.

    Great overview and recommendations, though you should mention charkas, Ghandhi-ji’s cotton spinning looms. My latest spinning challenge.

    Good wool!

  7. Am a senior starting all over hoping I have the co ordination of a drop spindle..I have never used one..I had a traditional Ashford many many years ago..But have not used a wheel in so long it almost seems like I’m a newbie again ..i don’t drive anymore so getting around d is a challenge so any group that will have me I’ll be grateful for.. That KS for any advise

  8. I spin, weave, and knit. One great source I found for beginning spinners is the Sheepspot Society: . I learned so much from them. I spin on a wheel, spindles, and electric spinners. The process to get from sheep to shawl/sweater is very labor intensive. The Industrial Revolution was a welcome relief to the women who spun at home. There are two fascinating books that trace the impact fiber production had on civilization. One is “Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years” by Elizabeth Wayland Barber and the other is “The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Changed the World” by Virginia I. Postrel

    Thanks for sharing your expertise on this subject.

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