You’ve done it; you’ve filled a bobbin or spindle
with your handspun yarn! But to paraphrase Yogi Berra: it ain’t
finished till it’s finished. Like a knitted or newly sewn
garment that isn’t done until it has been washed and blocked,
newly spun yarn needs to be washed or steamed to set the twist.
Some spinners may like to use freshly spun yarn as is (perhaps
those who like to work with “energized” yarns full
of active twist or those planning to weave with their handspun
and finish it as cloth), but most knitters will find that yarns
behave better and more predictably if we take a few more steps
before using our handpsun. Woolen yarns, especially down breeds,
can change rather dramatically after finishing—plumping
up and changing gauge from their unwashed counterparts.
an avid knitter after learning to spin,
and I have become so accustomed to washing
my yarn that I often wash commercial yarns
before knitting with them, especially more
artisanal yarns. Jacqueline Fee, author of The
Sweater Workshop, offers the rule of thumb: “weavers
wash last, knitters wash first, and should
no matter the yarn.” Of course, washing your swatch again
before embarking on your project is the best insurance against
sneaky yarn changes.
Winding a Skein Before you
can wash or steam your yarn, you need to make a skein. Spinners
with a full array of equipment can put a full bobbin on a lazy
kate and wind a skein with a niddy-noddy or reel, but it’s
easy enough to those who are just starting out to improvise.
You can use a shoebox to hold your spindle or bobbin while you
wind off your yarn between your hand and elbow or onto your
Those who spin often will find a niddy-noddy
or reel to be a worthwhile investment. It’s easier to show someone how
to use a niddy-noddy than it is to explain it.
Keep your tension
even (don’t pull too hard) and keep moving in one direction.
Niddy-noddies allow you to wind a skein
longer than what you can fit on your
arm, and reels [see below] are even more
efficient because they stand up on their
own and enable you to wind yarn more
Niddy-noddies and reels often wind skeins into two-yard or one-and-a-half-yard
skeins (you can take some scrap yarn
and wind it one time around and then measure
it if you are unsure what size skein your niddy-noddy or reel produces).
Then all you need to do is count the number of strands on one side
and multiply it by the skein length and you will know approximately
how many yards you have.
If you have used an alternative (like
your arm), you’ll need to measure
the length of one full wrap to estimate
your yardage. Every once in a while I get lucky, and the last bit
of yarn reaches the beginning of the skein
as I am winding it, but most of the time,
I need to bridge the gap with a bit of scrap yarn.
Don’t tell Alden Amos, though;
this would make him shudder. He recommends
going back a round until the ends of
handspun meet so that you don’t
misjudge your yardage. I hate to waste
even a few inches of handspun, but that’s
Once you’ve wound all the yarn
from your spindle or bobbin, you’ll
need to secure the skein with a figure-eight
tie in three to five places to prevent
it from becoming tangled as you wash
or dye it (go with 5 places
if your yarn is very fine or if you will
be dyeing it after winding). I like to
use white crochet cotton for my ties,
which is easy to see when it comes time
to cut it off.
Washing or Steaming Your Yarn to Set
the Twist The term “finishing” usually refers
to setting the twist on your yarn. You can set the twist by steaming
or washing your yarn.
To steam your yarn, hold it with a pair of tongs or a chopstick
or leave it on the niddy-noddy and carefully move the yarn
through the steam coming out of a teakettle--or use a garment
steamer if you have one. Wear an oven mitt and watch your body
parts--steam burns! Allow the yarn to dry for a few minutes
before using it. Be aware that steaming a yarn on a niddy-noddy
is the equivalent of drying it under tension; your gauge may
change after the item is washed, so it’s best to wash
a swatch first.
Steaming is quick and allows you to begin using your yarn
more quickly. It works for all fibers, and if your yarn is
already clean (without spinning oils or dust or dirt), it’s
a fast way to set the twist.
Although steaming is quick, I usually
like to wash my skeins when I’m done spinning so they feel
thoroughly clean and ready for knitting.
Everybody seems to develop their own routine for washing their
woolies, but here’s what I like to do. Wool and other
animal fibers can be soaked in warm-to-hot soapy water for
at least ten minutes and then rinsed clean. You can use a bit
of dish soap, shampoo, no-rinse wool wash, or other mild detergents.
Be sure not to agitate or wring so you don’t inadvertently
felt the fibers. In spite of clothing-care
labels that tell us to use only cold water to wash sweaters,
I wash most of my finished skeins in pretty hot water. I like
to use hot water to remove any residual oils or excess dye,
and I like to preshrink anything that might shrink before I
begin knitting; I have never had a problem with felting.
On the other hand, sometimes your yarn may like it rough--you
may actually want to full or felt your
yarn slightly during the finishing stage. You might want
to use this finishing technique with bulky singles, for example,
to discourage them from pilling. In that case, check out
the helpful directions for fulling your handspun in Amy King’s Spin
in Judith MacKenzie’s The
I am especially careful about what I use to wash silk. Silk
prefers an acidic environment and dish
soap and laundry detergents can be detrimental
to its fibers. I’ve used pure castile
Bronner’s), Eucalan and
SOAK for washing handspun silk yarns; Michael
an experienced worm shepherd, recommends
Plant fibers such as linen and cotton are best finished by
simmering the skeins in dish detergent in a pot of water on
the stove for 40 minutes or more. If you plan to dye cotton
yarn, you’ll need to simmer it in a pot of water and
detergent to which you’ve added two tablespoons of washing
soda (also called soda ash) to remove the natural waxes that
will prevent even dye absorption. Because I knit with my linen
and cotton yarns, they are plied and I boil them in skein form
(tied in several places to prevent tangling); those who are
finishing linen or cotton singles for weaving may want to boil
them on plastic cores (see Olive and Harry Linder’s classic
books, Handspinning Cotton and Handspinning
more information on making your own boiling bobbins or try
Stephanie Gaustad’s wonderful new video, Spinning
Remove your clean skein from the rinse water, gently squeeze
out any excess water, and lay the skein flat on a towel. Roll
the towel up and press out as much remaining moisture as you
can. I hang my skeins to dry without tension because I generally
knit with my handspun and prefer to retain any natural elasticity.
If you want your skeins to dry with a weight, try Maggie Casey’s
clever trick of hanging a plant mister on the bottom loop.
Twisting Your Skein
Once your skein is dry, you can twist it
into a neat little storage package. Hold the open skein at
each end of the loop and twist one side in one direction until
the skein twists back on itself. Then tuck one end into the
loop on the other end and voila: your skein, now officially
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lee Juvan learned to spin on a walking wheel
when she was twelve in a summer workshop at
Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts. She
bought her own wheel in 1990, and she’s
been at it since then. Lee is the designer
of several patterns published in Knitty, including
Shroom and Brighton.
You can see more
of her work on Ravelry, including her
new line of historically inspired patterns.