Saturday, February 17, 2007

Spinning for Lace

I have been asked by the president of the Wasatch Woolpack Hand Spinning guild to talk about spinning for lace. Lace is my knitting passion and over the years I have read and experimented on my own. What follows is an attempt to summarize the important points on spinning for lace. While going through it all, I suddenly realize that a book could be written! Not that I will attempt it, at least not for now. But I do want to share. Here is the spill:

Spinning for lace is not spinning thin!
When we think about spinning for lace we tend to envision yards and yards of very thin yarn. It turns out that it is not true. Lace cloth can be knitted from different yarn weights, just about any weight you can think of exception made to bulky and super-bulky. I have never seen lace cloth knit with yarns heavier than worsted weight but I guess it could be done.

The overall choices depend on what we envision as a finished product. We often hear spinners and knitters saying: “stash has to age it will ‘talk to us’ and eventually it will ‘tell us’ what it wants to be”. This approach is fine if you have unlimited storage space and lifespan! My opinion is that if you take control and decide what it is you want your finished item to be you will be happier and at the end you will have garments, cloths, colors, and skeins of what you really wanted to create. The ultimate goal is to have an end product that will make us proud and happy…. right?
The origin of UFOs (Unfinished Objects): UFOs are often bred when we start a project with a picture in mind and as we progress through our work we find that we do not like the texture, the color, the technique or it is just not what we have in mind. UFOs can be avoided if we know what we want and make the right decisions.

There are at least seven different techniques to create lace (knitting, crochet, weaving, bobbin lace, tatting, hairpin lace, and another one that escapes me) my focus has been on knitting, crochet, tatting and more recently on weaving.

I have tried to summarize in a comprehensive way the main focus points when spinning and knitting lace.

Types of lace in knitting:

Lace-Knitting: the fabric has a “right” and a “wrong” side. If knit flat, one row will be knit and the next one purl. If knit in the round all rows will be knit. This type of lace has pattern stitches only on the right side.
Knitted-Lace: also known as garter stitch lace does not have a “right” and a “wrong” side. If knit flat: all rows will be knit. If knit on the round the first row will be knit the second row will be purl. This type of lace usually (not always) has pattern stitches on both sides. The process is more complex and beginner knitters often shy away from this technique.
Either technique is nothing more than: knit, purl stitches and yarnovers. If you like it, try it! Even if you are a beginner, it can be done. Just make sure and use stitch markers, chart holders, chart markers and a row counter AND use life lines frequently.

Lace Characteristics

The goal is to have a yarn that will enhance the knitted patterns. In order to know what type of yarn we need there has to be a clear understanding of the characteristics of the lace cloth. There is an overlap or the lace characteristics described bellow in terms of what type of yarn and fiber is needed. I have tried to divide them in an effort to give it clarity. Keep in mind that one characteristic will lead into the next.

Characteristics of the lace cloth:
The yarn should be smooth, even, with very little or no halo. These characteristics will be given by the type of fiber and the fiber preparation process.
Clear pattern definition:
The yarn should be “flat”. The yarn dimension will be given by the number of plies and the plying technique used. Avoid more than two plies as well as Navajo three ply. The more strands in the finished yarn, the “rounder” the yarn will be. It will give you texture for cables but it will not give openness and drape.
Drape and body:
Will be given by the texture which in turn comes from how soft the fiber is and the number of twists per inch that we incorporate when we spin.
The feel to the touch will be given by the type of fiber: animal breed, micron count, and anatomic place from where the fiber is taken and the number of twists per inch. Neck and shoulder fibers are softer but often have more vegetable matter and are harder to clean. Shetland shawls have been spun from 2-3 ounces of Shetland neck wool.
The thinner the yarn the less the finished item will weigh and the more “delicate” the fiber will be. Cobweb yarn is approximately 18 yards to the gram that is about 370 yards to the ounce!
Intended use:
Hap shawls are “everyday wear” shawls knit in the Shetland Islands. They are knit from thicker yarns with different colors. These shawls are to be worn on a regular basis should withstand long wear, easy to wash and warm.
Christening and wedding shawls on the other hand are delicate, light in weight, made out of fine fibers like Shetland wool, cashmere wool or silk or a combination.
The color we use depends on the intended use and the type of lace we are going to knit. Garter stitch tends to “mud” the colors and lace-knitting tends to separate them. Also when knitting with variegated yarns specially hand dyed yarn you should take into account that the skeins will have some sort of a “pattern” in color. In order to avoid color pooling it might be necessary to knit alternating skeins. “Rosieblogs” has an excellent hand dying series that addresses hand dyed yarn.[1]

What and How to Spin
Decision Time

Types of fiber and fiber preparation:

Wool: the great benefit of wool is the insulation properties and the elasticity. The elasticity is given by the amount of crimp and the fiber structure. Those little curls that we see in unprocessed locks that drive every spinner I know nuts! If working with raw fiber, make sure and test for soundness. Stable, unbroken fibers will have a “metallic” sound when pulled from the ends, with a firm and steady tug the lock should not break. Broken tips or second cuts at either end can be pulled out by hand or combed. What is important is that it does not have a break too far away from the either end. Again remember that different breeds have different types of coats. Select carefully!

Camelids-Angora-Cashmere-Silk: Also known as exotic fibers are often soft and warmer than wool. It comes in lovely natural colors and for the most part have a natural luster. The drawback is that these fibers do not have elasticity, they do not have memory therefore the fabric created with 100% content from this fibers will not hold shape. In general they have halo and require more twist than wool.

Blends: In my opinion blends are the best spinning fibers. Blending fiber types you get the best of both worlds. The percentage of fiber to add of each kind depends on the intended finished product. For lace add 10-20% at the most or you will have fuzzy yarns that will obscure the pattern.

Scouring: is the process of washing raw fibers. Wool has lanolin silk has gum. Camelids and angora do not have either. Cashmere has a waxy coating that can be difficult to scour.
Camelids have lots of dirt and dust and can have incredible amounts of vegetable matter. Vegetable matter is hard to get out sometimes even impossible. Soaking over night in cold water takes care of the dirt, soap is not necessary in this step. Use soap for the last cleaning stage only. Vegetable matter can be spun out using the clothes dryer in cold setting and spinning the fiber. Do not put wet or damp fiber in the dryer it will FELT!

In general avoid buying fleeces with vegetable matter, it is frustrating to work with and almost impossible to get completely out. Buy from known sources and if buying online or sight-unseen always ask for a sample.
The “fresher” the fleece the easier it is to get it clean. If you have an unwashed fleece get it clean it as soon as you can. Moths are attracted to lanolin and deterred by scents in soaps and chemicals. Don’t tempt them!

Fine wools have more lanolin than the coarser type. I have tried multiple methods in washing fine fleeces. I have used the cheap and the expensive. If the lanolin does not come out completely, you will find that after a few days, the wool will be sticky to the touch. Spinning wool like this is difficult, it does not draft easily and it will result in uneven and lumpy yarn. After experimenting with water temperatures, different kinds of soaps, soaking times, I have found the “ideal” wool scouring formula. I use the washing machine, wet wool is heavy to move around and yucky water not fun to get rid of. The important thing about using the washing machine is avoid agitation. Other than that, if you do it right and take your time it is easy and fun to do.
- Fill the tub with hot warm not hot. Soak the wool overnight. The purpose is to get rid of as much dirt as possible before using the soap. You can use mesh bags or not. To be on the safe side use pour bleach in the drain after you are done. That will take care of any little bits of wool that might have escaped.
- If the soaking water is too dirty, do a second soak with warm water.
- Spin the water out using the SPIN cycle, do not allow the rinsing water to fall on the wool.
- Take the wool OUT of the tub. Clean the tub with a wet rag or paper towels and refill. This time with hot water. Temperature should be around 140 degrees. Add two cups of Arm and Hammer detergent and 1 cup or ammonia. Be careful! Ammonia is strong, do not breathe into it. Make sure and turn the dial to the OFF position. Gently put the wool back into the tub. Push it down gently with a stick. If there is movement bellow the water, the wool will not felt. Do not allow any friction with the wool above the water.
- Soak for 40 minutes with the lid down.
- Spin out the water and remove the wool again.
- Clean the tub again. Refill with hot water and 2 cups of Arm and Hammer. NO ammonia. Soak for 40 minutes. Spin and unload.
- Repeat the last step two more times but soaking with no detergent for 20 minutes.
- Your wool should be clean.

The above scouring method was adapted from an email posted in one of the yahoo spinning lists. I foolishly did not save the author’s name and regret that I can not quote her personally. But I am doing so by acknowledging that it is NOT my original idea. Who ever you are and if you read this, please let me know so I can give you the proper credit.
Margaret Stove[2] washes the wool in tight mesh bags “organizing” the locks length wise and not allowing them to move around. I have found that long locks are easy to realine. As long as you are careful when you place them on the combs or when holding them for flicking, the orientation of the fibers can be kept intact.

Woolen vs. Worsted:

Woolen yarns are spun from carded fibers where not all the strands are parallel to each other. They are a mixture of short and long fibers. The resulting yarn will have halo and will be warm because it incorporates more air during the spinning process. This type of yarn is usually, spun with long draw and with few twists per inch. Not ideal for lace.

Worsted yarns on the other hand, are spun from combed tops or fibers that have been prepared keeping the strands parallel to each other. The resulting yarn is even, free of halo and tends to be flat. This type of yarn is ideal for lace.
Spinning from combed tops can be difficult especially if the top is compact. Some degree of pre-drafting might be needed. A way to get around this difficulty is spinning from the fold. Some authors say that when spun from the fold the yarn will not be true worsted spun but in practice if you look carefully at the drafting triangle you can see that the fibers are aligned parallel to each other and the resulting yarn is even and flat. Sarah Lamb in an article published in the Spin-Off magazine talks about this. She spins silk for hand woven kimonos from the fold. [3] She says, and I agree with her, that it might not be true worsted spinning but the resulting yarn is smooth and sufficiently even for weaving and lace spinning.

The thinner the yarn the more twists per inch it will require. This is important to remember when selecting the breed. Coarse fibers like Jacob is spun with lots of twist will create wire type yarn that is not suitable for delicate shawls, next to skin garments and every day wear. “Wire yarn” will not drape and if spun with enough twist and knit tight it will make “bullet proof” cloth!
Soft fibers like Merino and Rambouliet and intermediate ones like Shetland have long staple lengths. For this reason, these breeds are easy to comb or prepare by hand. Soft fibers tend to pill or produce nebs. In order to avoid pills care must be taken to take out as much short fibers as possible and incorporate lots of twist.
Combing wool is another trip of its own. Suffice it to say that it is enjoyable for some and care must be taken to use the proper technique to avoid repetitive movement injury. It is hard work on the hands and wrists and the combs can be dangerous. The resulting fiber is luscious!
Long staple length fiber can also be prepared by flicking with a metal comb or simply by pulling on the ends of the locks. If long enough, the locks can be spun from the fold. Some authors (Margaret Stove) says that you should spin the locks in the same direction, holding the cut end close to your body and feeding the tip to the spinning wheel or spindle. To be totally honest I have experimented both ways and I see no difference in the end result.

Twists per inch (TPI)

TPI are the number of twists that an inch of yarn will have. The finer the yarn the more TPI it will require. It will be determined by: the ratios on your spinning wheel: how many times does the bobbin spin each time you treadle, the uptake and the speed at which you are treading and the drafting speed. On average for lace weight and fine yarns it varies between 8 and 12. I have yet to meet the spinner that will sit there and count twist after twist. It is a good reference to keep in mind when you are starting to sample and adjusting the wheel. An excellent explanation can be found in a handout from Peter Teal available online[4].

The last bit of advice that I can give is: always buy the best you can possibly find and afford. Life it too short! Fiber arts imply lots of work, go for the very best and enjoy!

1. Rosieblogs. 2007 [cited; Available from:
2. Margaret, S., Handspinning, dyeing, and working with Merino and superfine wools. 1991.ISBN: 0934026718
3. Lamb, S. 2007 [cited; Available from:
4. Teal, P. 2007 [cited; Available from:
Copyright: 2007 Laritza Taft
The content of this blog and post can not be reproduced or printed for sale or commercial purposes. Personal use only. If you find the information useful, please do share.


Tan said...

Wow, what a great resource! When are you giving your lecture?

Leigh said...

Wow! What a lot of excellent information, for lace yarns and general spinning as well. Thanks!

jackie said...

Wow! What a lot of really useful information! You have answered a few questions that I didn't even know I had. Thanks

Jane said...

When is that book of yours going to be published? Really great information rendered very understandable. Thank You!

Zefiber said...

What a wonderful post! Thank you for sharing your wealth of information with the rest of us. Hope to see you at SPA next year!

Louisa said...

The other lace technique you were thinking of is needle lace! That was a great spinning tutorial in a nutshell, but I'm still not clear on what makes a good yarn for lace knitting as opposed to any other use. (Apart from "flat" 2-ply as opposed to "round" 3-ply.) What's the right amount of twist, higher or lower TPI? What about a singles such as Shetland cobweb? More please!

Renee said...

Thank you for this useful information. Now, I would be very grateful for a bit of advice as I am presently spinning some very dark brown, cross-bred merino into enough 1 ply yarn to knit a shetland shawl. How can I stop the yarn from untwisting and curling up on itself as I am knitting it. Do I need to steam it somehow or just allow it to rest for a time to set the twist? I am spinning straight from the fresh fleece.

vonnie said...

Can you give any advice on carding the nebs and pills out of Shetland wool? Have you a special method?