Spinning Philosophy Continued

So, last week I talked about The Uncarved Block and Beginner’s Mind

A couple people have asked about this, mostly a form of, “But if you’re always starting as a beginner, how do you improve? Don’t you want to make better stuff?”

I am not a philosopher. I can’t tell you that this is the “right” way to interpret these concepts, but this is how I see them and use them.

The Uncarved Block and Beginner’s Mind aren’t about not moving, in fact, quite the opposite. They’re about being where you are, now, SO THAT you can move. It is very easy to get bogged down with where we “should” be, how skilled we “should” be, what we “should” be able to make. In fact, it’s easy to get so bogged down, so frustrated at the “should” that you can’t make anything at all.

Those are thoughts antithetical to the both the Uncarved Block and the Beginner’s Mind. The block doesn’t think about what it should be, it is pure potential. The true beginner doesn’t think about what they SHOULD be able to make, they are a beginner, so they start at the beginning.

I have been spinning for years now. My hands mostly know the motions. I can walk while spindle spinning. When I sit down at the wheel, I don’t forget all that! What I DO do, though, is sit down and say, “This IS where I am, THIS is my starting point, TODAY’S beginning.”

I mentioned in the last post that I often take on hard projects to help me with this mindset. Basically, I’m deliberately pushing the “should” toward where I am. If I can tell myself “this SHOULD be hard, it’s a hard project” then it’s a lot easier for me to let go of that voice in the back of my head that says, “You SHOULD be perfect at this, you SHOULD be better at this, WHY aren’t you?” I think of it as artificial Beginner’s Mind.

It’s also why I keep my first yarn. I can hold up that yarn in front of that mean little voice in the back of my head and say, “This is where I started. Look where I am today! So screw off with your should’s!”

Which brings us to improvement. These ideas aren’t about not improving, they’re about giving yourself the space to improve at the pace you improve. If you can start a project with a beginner’s mind, an uncarved block, aware of where you actually are, not where you “should” be, then you can also accurately evaluate your progress from that point. You can say, “Ok, my hands know how to make a thin yarn now, but my consistency is still struggling a little, maybe next time I’ll try a reference card.” Without that mindset, it’s far too easy to look and see all the faults at once, think you’re not improving, and thus not know where to focus your efforts. It’s also easy to get frustrated that your yarn isn’t perfect and just stop.

And I’ll tell you a secret. Shh, don’t tell anyone but… your yarn will never be perfect.

Never. Mine isn’t. No one’s is! The more you learn, the more you can see every flaw, and the more you know what’s possible. I know people who’ve been spinning for 40 years and make AMAZING yarn… they still can see improvements to be made. Each day they start where they are, and move forward from there.

The Uncarved Block and Beginner’s Mind are not about perfection, they are about improvement. Start where you are, and move forward. If you believe you “should” be “perfect” then you’ve already lost the battle, because no yarn is perfect, even the yarns spun by the Moerae* have snags.

So get spinning. Wherever you are in the journey, start there, every time.

That’s all for now!

*Moerae: Greek Fates – Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos who spun the lives/destinies of humanity

~The Gnome

Spinning: Romney and The Uncarved Block

It has been a long time since I spun. I mean a LONG time.

I recently plied a rideau arcotte two-ply that had been sitting, completely spun, on my wheel for at least 5 years, and maybe more.

So, I decided it was time to get back into it. I love it, and it’s good to know the fiber I’m dyeing in a more intimate fashion than just how it behaves in the pot. So, a taste for the future, I plan to do more of these blog posts. We’ll see if I succeed.

I have this lovely soft lofty romney I got from a local breeder and got processed by my favorite processor into roving (the same romney that’s in the shop). Romney is a medium wool that’s used all over the country for a lot of different purposes, leading to a significantly variant fiber characteristic. It can be SUPER long, or only moderately. It can be pretty coarse (think 70’s wool sweater prickly) or downright silky. This particular batch of small farm Romney was on the average length, extra fine ends of the spectrum, and quite clean. Once back from the processor, it begged to be spun into a nice lofty, fuzzy yarn. This made it perfect for my purposes of getting back into spinning. And along with getting back into spinning, a dose of spinning philosophy.

Why, you ask?

Because I am not very good at longdraw, and that would be a great way to spin this.

Wait, you’re saying, it’s perfect because you need to spin it a way you’re bad at?

Exactly! Using a technique I know I’m not an expert in lets me more easily hang onto a concept known as “P’u” or “The Uncarved Block” from Taoism. There is what I think of as an outgrowth of this idea, though it’s technically a separate Buddhist one, referred to as “Shoshin” or “the Beginner’s Mind.” Which is all a very long lead-in to say that when I am learning something, or RElearning something, I work very hard to be Pooh, and not Rabbit.

You’re giving me that look again. Ah, yes, I learned about the idea of P’u from the fabulous book, “The Tao of Pooh” by Benjamin Hoff, and the idea has stuck with me for my whole life as I’ve struggled, or not, to learn things. Basically, the idea is that you can’t overcomplicate things with expectations and assumptions and all the things something “should” be and how it “should” work. You have to approach each thing with a fresh mind, an uncarved block, and each task with a mind open to learning and working to learn new things, a beginner’s mind. In a word, be like Winnie the Pooh.

By default, I want to be perfect. I am very definitively… not. What this means, practically speaking, is that I don’t like it when things I make aren’t perfect or I am not skilled at things. I have figured out a way around this, purposefully make things hard for myself. By making things hard, I then can convince myself it SHOULD be hard, and therefor that it’s ok to struggle. Which brings us back to the Uncarved Block and Beginner’s Mind. (All pictures can be clicked to embiggen)

This is the first yarn I spun. It is three-ply, corriedale, spun on my Ashford Traditional. It is thick as my thumb in some places, so large that when spinning it I often had to literally shove it through the orifice to wind it on the bobbin. There are a thousand things wrong with this yarn, and if I wanted to, I could go through them all. But I don’t. I’ve been spinning (with obvious breaks) for 10 years, and I have never sat down and critiqued this yarn.

Because this is the first yarn I spun. The first fiber I took from a fluffy cloud, spun, and plied into an actual yarn that could, theoretically, be crocheted or knit with (given large enough hooks/needles). It is just over 2 ounces, and I MADE it. When I had almost no idea what I was doing, I made this thing.

I LOVE this ridiculous skein of yarn.

It’s soft, it’s squishy, and I MADE IT.

When I spin, I try (and often fail) to catch that sense of wonder and acceptance that things won’t be perfect. A great spinner and talented woman, Abby Franquemont, put it this way, “Let yourself suck.” Which is, of course, a restatement of the Uncarved Block and Beginner’s Mind mantras. When I spun that first skein, I was DELIGHTED. Whatever else was wrong with it, it looked recognizably like yarn, and it was magic. I wasn’t concerned with making it perfect, I was “letting myself suck” because I knew I was learning. There’s a bit of magic every time you make something, and by the time I broke off regular spinning, I could pretty easily spin super fine yarn on a wheel or on a spindle while walking.

But that first skein will always be special, which is why I keep it. As a reminder of where I came from, and the magic of that first moment of “OMG It’s working!” Which all finally brings us back to the Romney and my relearning to spin. I knew that my hands and muscles would be out of practice. So I purposefully picked a fiber that was well suited to a skill I had only been passable at when I went on break. The idea being that I could be patient with myself, get myself into the beginner’s mind and let myself suck a little. I also didn’t make plans on use or much in the way of an idea of fineness. Long draw would help keep the fluff in the Romney, and not compact it, since I really wanted to preserve its rare softness.

So I dyed up some muddy green/brown colors I loved and got down to business. I’ll do another post (or series of posts) later about how exactly I control colors, but that would be a bit much for this post.

I decided on a three-ply because… because. No particular reason besides I felt like it and three-ply with multicolor tends to maximize tweediness if I wanted to use it for something later. And then I finally started spinning!

It came back fairly quickly. Main challenges were getting enough tension on my Schact-Reeves 30 inch. If I was doing this more often, I would likely switch to a heavier drive band. But it mostly worked, and I did some experiments on compensating with additives that I’ll post about later as well. I still tended to default to a supported long draw, which gave me a little more control. I also quickly relearned that longdraw is WAY easier if you open up the fibers first, and that it was way easier to spin from one end of the roving (though by no means impossible).

Then it was time for plying, which is always fun! I tension with my plying hand, because I’ve never gotten a braking lazy-kate. It works for me, and resulted in… yarn!

4oz fits just about exactly plied on these Schact bobbins, which is always a bonus. And it measured up to… 134yds.

With some left over. I knew there would be left overs because I was carefully not worrying about that, choosing to focus on the technique to the exclusion of other things. This meant more leftover than usual.

Leftovers were plied into a two ply. STILL remaining leftovers (you’ll notice the leftover bobbins aren’t the same either) were plied back with themselves. All the yarns were measured, given a warm bath, snap, and light thwack to even out the plying. Much to my surprise, they’re pretty balanced (another thing I didn’t plan, I just plyed until I liked the look).

134 yds of three-ply
38 yds of two-ply
12 yds of two-plied back on itself

And the final yarn?

A surprisingly even dk/worstedish yarn, with plenty of flaws, but no monumental ones that would prevent its use. Which is pretty neat, since I was not worrying at all about those things. But when I let myself have an empty mind about it, I didn’t worry and overanalyze. So I guess I naturally evened it out instead of ending up trying too hard to control it and ending up with a thick-thin monstrosity. Yay!

And my goals? Definitely got better at supported long draw. Definitely remembered how much I love spinning. Definitely saved the softness and loft of the original fiber. It’s very squishy and enjoyable.

I call that a win.

Next up on the wheel is some Manx Loaghtan

And, as a bonus for reading this far… a sneak peek of a current Gnomespun project:

That’s all for now!
~The Gnome


NEFF 2012!

And of course… after Rhinebeck…

Then it was time for more dyeing, and NEFF! New England Fiber Festival. Luckily this one was close.

I was with Moose Manor and Art for your Feet on this one, who shockingly made it up here after Sandy wiped out their power and flooded their basements and left all manner of destruction in their neighborhoods.


It was nice, relaxing. And of course, good company.


On the first day I made my only big purchase, a Russian spindle from Spunky Eclectic. I’ve never spun on one of these before. It’s made with lignum vitae and I really like it. Though it’s not as transportable as a suspended spindle.


After about 20 minutes of futzing and figuring, I pretty much got it down, though I’m not terribly fast at it. I made some lovely super fluffy yarn with the ColumbiDale roving.

Once I’d figured that out I decided, hey screw this fiber stuff. Fiber’s for noobs and wimps, right? If Rumplestiltskin can spin straw into gold, I should be able to do better than that, right?

Aawwww yeah. I decided physical spinning was too easy. Bring on ethereal spinning! I’m gonna spin LIGHT!


And finally it was back home! WHEW!

Dogs say, “Next time we’re coming with you!”

That’s all for now!
~The Gnome

Spinning: BFL Fingering

At MA Sheep and Wool festival in Cummington, I limited myself to a set of DPNs and some lovely BFL from Spunky Eclectic. It was called something like “Spare Change” or similar.

Spunky Eclectic BFL

A bit ago I was feeling really stressed. Can’t remember over what now, probably job hunting (which is… slow going but I think I’m making progress. Three fairly high probability things in the works now) but who knows? So I decided to do some spinning, just for fun and just relaxing. So I pulled out the BFL and started spinning. Decided I wanted to spin it on the fine end, but other than that I didn’t really pay that much attention. Spun with my weird not-quite-short-draw. Supported short draw? Anyway.

Spunky Eclectic BFL

Mostly I watched Netflix and let stress go. As such, there are strengths and weaknesses to the resulting yarn. I’ll get to that in a bit. Eventually I finished it. One whole bobbin of 4oz of lovely hand dyed BFL singles.

Spunky Eclectic BFL

Not bad. Of course now I had the “Well you just spun all 4oz onto one bobbin” problem. Doh. Ok, I’ll just wind a plying ball, not too bad, right? Get out a TP tube and my handy ball winder and…

Spunky Eclectic BFL

Yay, center pull ball on a TP tube! If it was perfectly even, I could just measure the weight to exactly two ounces and and then ply, but since I knew it wasn’t… I decided to use the center-pullness. I’ve had some success and some difficulties with this method in the past.

The first time I did it, I didn’t use a TP tube, so the center collapsed and halfway through plying my yarn was so tangled I cut the second half off and tossed it (a fiber with cashmere in it, yes it was that bad). So I didn’t want to repeat that, thus the TP tube.

The second time (and several more after) I used the tube and then plied directly from the ball to my wheel. This works, but it’s really slow because the ball is pretty tight on the tube and getting it to feed out evenly from the inside and outside is hard… and I don’t have enough hands.

Once before I wound from the center pull back to the ball winder. That made a really nice plying ball I could do whatever I wanted with, but again not enough hands and just… argh. It doesn’t wind on evenly it unwinds, it’s a pain. So this time I thought, ooh I know what I’ll do! I’ll wind myself a two stranded skein on my umbrella swift! Then I’ll go from THAT onto my ball winder!

…do not do this.

I spent… an hour? Maybe more? Getting it onto the swift was very slow and gave me a massive shoulder cramp. It didn’t want to unload singles from the inside and outside at the same rate, I had trouble winding them, etc. etc. etc. But, I thought, it’s there now so I can just ZHOOP it onto the ball winder! HAHAHAHAHAHAHA. Also ha. Yeah, that so wasn’t happening. I did get it off and onto the ballwinder, but I forgot this critical piece of the equation. Yeah, you’re already there, aren’t you? Activated singles on an umbrella swift. In a nice fine fiber. Tangled mess.

In short, I got it off onto the ball winder. It took several hours. Bad plan. Don’t do that. Bad badness. But I had a plying ball! FINALLY.

Spunky Eclectic BFL

Huzzah! And from here it really WAS a matter of ZHOOP onto the wheel for plying. That part was nice. Unfortunately it was more uneven than I had thought. Less so in thickness (though there’s some unevenness there) and moreso in the amount of twist. Doh. That’s what I get for totally spacing out. I don’t usually have to look at my spinning to keep an even tpi (twists per inch) but I don’t normally totally stop paying any attention whatsoever.

The result? Well, take a look.

Spunky Eclectic BFL

You can see there’s some rather thoroughly underplied sections. But because the twist isn’t even, it’s hard to get them to even out. I could re-ply the whole thing, but then I’d still have minimally plied sections and overplied sections. ::shrug:: I think I’ll just go with it. It is pretty, and I think it’ll work for the thing I have planned… though I really should check the yardage on that pattern.

Spunky Eclectic BFL

I have about 420 yards of yarn, in about a fingering/sockish weight. BFL tends to poof up quite a bit in comparison with the size you spin it. It should be enough for… just a sec I’ll be right back…

Woodland Shawl (Ravelry link)

Yeah, it’s close. I’ll probably chop a repeat or two off the side to make sure I have enough. And being a dude (I know, you totally forgot didn’t you?) and with the yarn being not ideally plied, I may forego extensive blocking. Or I may not. This is all in the magical future where I actually have time to knit this thing. Right now all knitting time (something an hour carpooling commute each way is good for!) is going towards the Sweater of Doom. Which isn’t a bad thing, really. The sweater’s progressing again. I have two sleeves THAT MATCH. And I’m almost ready to attach them to the body! Wow. Yeah. I might actually have this damned thing done to wear to Rhinebeck! ::Gasp:: I know, only a year and… a half…ish… so far. Anyway, that’s continuing. So far I’m happy with it. Hopefully I will remain that way!

And with that off the wheel I put some East Friesian in “Merlot” (a Gnomespun colorway) that wasn’t braidable (a bump end) on the wheel. We’re going to see if I can manage a sock weight 3-ply with that. We’ll see. I’m about a third of the way through the first ply so far. Being a downs wool roving, it may puff up more than ideal but being lazy I didn’t feel like sampling.

Also, dogs, on a trail run with me, in the water. They love the water. And Mokey LOVES the water. Also swimming (not possible here.


Okie dokie, smokey. Think that’s all for now!

~The Gnome

Okie dokie, smokey.

Spinning Thoughts and Coopworth Heavy Lace

So, I’ve been spinning again!

But first, as my old Dean would say in his British accent, some “mental masturbation.” Scroll down to the bolded heading if you don’t want to read my rambling about spinning method.

I suppose I should say here, again, in case it wasn’t clear in the past. I do not have the One-True-Way of spinning. I don’t believe there is one. There are a lot of ways of approaching spinning, depending on your goals and your reasons for spinning. And none are universally more valid than others, though for any given set of circumstances some may be more ideal.

Me? I’m a process spinner, as a hobby. I mostly spin for myself, to “have yarn” as my friend Marcy says. Sometimes I spin for socks or a particular project. But all of it is because I enjoy it, which means my primary goal is the enjoyment aspect. This most definitely changes the process I use. There are things I do and do not do that I might otherwise. For example, I almost never count my grist, or calculate my ypp (yards per pound).

I have done it for a few projects. I have briefly been a professional spinner and sometimes people still commission me for my spinning skills. In those cases I pay and have paid more attention to exactly the technical specs of the yarn. I’ve even “spun with numbers” for a project of my own. The resulting yarn was lovely and quite even. If I was producing a perfectly even light lace for someone’s wedding shawl, I would probably do it again. I will be the first to say it’s a useful skill to have if you want to be able to get truly consistent results over long periods of time.

However, by and large, I spin for my own projects and my own enjoyment and my own uses. My feet don’t require yarn to be ideal for my socks, in fact they prefer yarn that’s a little off ideal (for example: woolen spun yarn, mmm squishy!). Just like a lot of people will still spin and knit socks with polwarth because it’s soft, even though it will wear out sooner, I will spin and knit socks with woolen spun yarns with less than “perfect” numbers because it makes me and my feet happy.

It does mean that my socks may not last quite as long as they could otherwise. My laceweight will not block as flawlessly as it might. The last hat I made had some, “character.” And this is the crux of the question. Like most decisions in life you have to balance the competing forces driving your spinning. Me, I’m a scientist. I live a life of concrete details and exacting numbers of ridiculously small amounts. That drop of water on your counter? 50 times more than most of the numbers I’m dealing with. So when I get home, the last thing I want to deal with is numbers that exacting. So I’m willing to sacrifice some long-wearingness and numerical perfection on my yarns to maintain my enjoyment. My socks still last for ages (I’ve only ever worn through one pair of handknit socks), and that’s enough for me.

I’m somewhere on the “right yarn for the job” end of the spectrum, but I’m nowhere near the end. The other end would be, “let the fiber do what it wants” which can also be valid – again depending on why you’re spinning. I find that as frustrating as spin by numbers because though I’m a process spinner, I’m a results knitter/crocheter. I want to make an item, usually a particular item.

If you’re using me as a model for spinning, that’s what you will get, yarn that serves the purpose. What I spin these days, however, is not “professional” yarn, because I am no longer a professional spinner and spin for other reasons. My yarns will not match perfectly in grist, will not have perfectly balanced twists per inch, and a ypp measurement is not going to be perfectly accurate.

Spin to make yourself happy. Now, to be clear, that doesn’t (necessarily) mean charging in willy-nilly and just doing one thing “because it makes you happy.” There should be some thought involved. I have made a conscious choice to sacrifice some things in order to bias towards others. But it should be a choice. If wearing holes in your socks is going to make you sad, read up on what people use for socks and why.

And never accept that you “can’t” spin a certain way if you want to. Yes, even you over there that thinks you “can’t” longdraw. I can spin by the numbers. I can also spin to just let the fiber do what it wants. I, and you can spin any way there is to spin. And in that ability is to evaluate your own needs/goals and choose the method and balance that will make you most happy in the long run.

Coopworth Heavy Laceweight:

So, the actual spinning. Coopworth that missed getting its photo taken for an update. This was interesting in that I didn’t have a purpose planned for it when I started spinning. After a bit of fiddling, I decided to spin it fairly fine, with a longdraw/double draft combination method. I originally thougt I would go with a pure longdraw, but decided that the roving was just grabby enough that I really wanted the double draft to get it a little more even. This is a coopworth roving with a fairly long staple, so I thought I’d let it halo a little via longdraw. Maybe I’d actually do some lace?

So I split it in two and spun it up. One then the other.


Not bad, put the two bobbins on the lazy kate and they look pretty similar, a good start.


At one point in the middle I did lose track of my rough wpi goal and got a little thicker. ::shrugs:: Nothing absurd, but definitely noticeable if you put them near eachother. You could also see it by the fact my second bobbin still had a fair bit left on it after plying and running out on the first bobbin. Drat.

Luckily, there is a fix for that, even if it also tells you that there will be some thicker parts in your yarn. So, I wound off the remaining singles with my ballwinder, onto a TP tube.


Now, in theory you can ply from the two ends of this. And when I have not much yarn on there, I do just that. But since this was laceweight, I had a fair amount. So I didn’t want to risk it all getting tangled and messy. So instead of plying off the ball directly, I took the TP tube and wound from both ends BACK onto the ball winder again…


So now I have another ball, but this time with two strands right next to eachother. This is WAY easier to deal with going onto the wheel without dropping things or having things slip and knot.

So I finally had two bobbins, plied


Time to wind off and thwack the holy mackeral out of it and swish it hard against itself in the water. Get some nice fluff and fulling. Then back on the swift again to reskein and measure (since with that heavy thwacking it can lose a fair bit of yardage).


420yds. So… a little thicker than my ideal in some spots. Otherwise there would have been more than 420 yards with this fiber. Hrm, let’s see…


Yep, there it is. This is the thickest along with the thinnest. You can see at some point I was paying too much attention to someone else and drifted. Sadly, no amount of counting or sample cards will protect you from not actually paying attention to what you’re doing. You can see I lost gauge, but I also wasn’t putting in quite as much twist. Again, not disastrous since there’s no plan for this yarn. It doesn’t have to be flawless or meet a certain yardage. But, I couldn’t use it for some exacting projects, and I couldn’t make a 500yd project with it.

Overall, it’s a pretty nice yarn. Fairly soft, even with heavier than my usual plying. As a longwool, this tight plying isn’t strictly necessary, though it means it would hold up well to harsh lace blocking. As it stands, I’m going to be giving it to a friend of mine who I think has something in mind. Maybe. Maybe he just wants to “have yarn.”

Mmmm yarn.

Also, Gobo loves you. Pet him or he will be very sad.


That’s all for now!

~The Gnome