About the time that I started spinning yarn, I happened to read an unrelated (so I thought) article about a Viking encampment in National Geographic. Further down in the article, it notes how a type of cord found in a dig in an ancient site on Baffin Island actually helped solidify the connection to Viking settlements in Greenland because of the material and way it was spun into cord. It kind of put a new twist (pun intended) on what I was undertaking and made me realize that making handspun yarn, while an unusual and boutique industry today, has always been an essential part of human culture. I was hooked and from that moment a few years ago, I’ve developed an absolute passion for spinning.
The Big Difference in Handspun Yarn
If you put a commercial skein of yarn next to handspun yarn, the differences are clear. The commercial skein will likely have consistent colors and thickness throughout. Handspun skeins show variability. I think there is something magical about knowing that the handspun yarn, every inch of it, has passed through an artisan’s hands and under their watchful eye. To me, there is a value in the time and consideration it represents. In what I think is ironic, some commercial brands of yarn are now producing skeins that mimic something that is handspun. A bit more fuzzy, more of a handpainted or blended coloring, and textures of thick and thin.
The variability and lack of, shall we say, perfection, actually elevates a handspun skein to a more artistic expression. Certainly, the fact that many such yarns are one-of-a-kind make them special also because they are so unique and not replicated. I don’t thick I was really able to articulate what I seemed to feel until I began reading about Saori weaving and the philosophy behind it. In a gross simplification, the “flaws” or variability of a hand made item truly reflect the creativity of the person making it and make it human – and not made by a machine/mill.
The Art of Plying Handspun Yarn
Spinning a single is just that, a single strand twisted to form yarn. If two singles are then twisted together (in the reverse direction, by the way) then you have a 2-ply yarn, 2 yarns plied together. Truly skilled spinners take handspun yarn even further in creating what is now referred to in the industry as art yarn. By adding in whole wool locks, thick sections of silk or silk fabric, clumps of sparkles, feathers, beads, and more, art yarn spinners truly make skeins that exist as works of art in and of themselves. And it isn’t just the materials incorporated. The toolbox of spinning techniques has exploded in recent years. Boucle, core-spinning, auto-wrapping, chain-plying, to name a few, and combinations of these techniques allow a spinner to create a truly remarkable creative expression in the form of a skein of yarn.
Also of note is that many handspinners make specific choices about the fiber with which they work. Some spinners purchase fleece from sheep growers, washing and combing it by hand to prepare it for spinning. Others may purchase fiber ready to spin, but then do their own dyeing to create colorways that not only don’t exist in commercial yarn but can be customized for a specific customer. Instead of the generic “wool” on the labels of commercial yarn, handspinners are well-educated on the various breeds of sheep and the variations in their wool. Spinners know that using a long lock wool such as Lincoln or Romney can produce a strong yarn that may not be next-to-skin soft but is excellent in making long-wearing goods. Conversely, if a spinner uses Merino or Bluefaced Leicester, they know the yarn will be next-to-skin soft for gloves and scarves, though it may not be as durable as the Romney.
The Art of Fiber Preparation
Preparation of fiber for spinning can involve blending wool with additional types of fiber such as strong and shiny silks, supple bamboo, whole locks, nylons that sparkle, and a myriad of other add-ins. Fiber preparation, in fact, has become its own subset of the spinning culture with some artisans finding tremendous joy in this mid-stream step for creative expression.
Handspun yarn, and its wild-child incarnation as art yarn, are wonderful materials for fiber enthusiasts to use. Handspun yarn can be more costly than commercial yarn, but one must remember it is not made by the thousands by a machine but is the result of a long chain of artisans making decisions about the fiber at many steps along the way. Even if an entire project isn’t made of handspun yarn, incorporating an accent stripe in a sweater, or periodic sections in a weaving, can make a project sing. Often, those admiring finished projects will be drawn initially to the handmade yarn in the piece. I’ve seen examples of art yarn simple set out in a bowl or strung strategically on a wall to be an art object. That said, the highly textured art yarn can be used as embellishment on the edge of gloves, a hat or scarf, or to line the top of a jacket pocket or button placket, and even to top boots or accent the strap of a purse or bag.
I hope some of my thoughts about handspun yarn have you excited to add some to your knitting or weaving stash, or perhaps to consider spinning yarn yourself. While it may not be as essential a skill as it was thousands of years ago, it is important we don’t forget how things like yarn were once made – and still can be – by hand.