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