Adjusting a spinning wheel to spin fine(r) yarns

This is complicated and far easier to explain in person when I’m pointing at the bits of your wheel in front of you, but I’ll try to cover the main topics, and I’ll suggest some tweaks that I find useful.
If you find this an intimidatingly technical read, I assure you it was just as intimidating to write. It requires precision in the descriptions that makes me feel as though I’m pretending to be an engineer.

‘how do I stop my wheel pulling!’ is the most frequent question when I teach this in person, so I’ll start by discussing take-up (the speed/force with which your wheel pulls the yarn through the orifice and onto the bobbin).

‘how do I add more twist faster?’ Once your wheel isn’t snatching the yarn from your hands you have time to consider another important issue: the thinner your yarn, the more twist is needed to make it competent. So, once you’re happy drafting your fine yarn it’s worth setting up your wheel to add lots of twist fast if that’s possible.

Here’s an example of what is possible with a wheel set up to spin fine thread. At Fibre East in 2014 someone asked if I could spin cotton thread for lacemaking. I said I wasn’t sure, never having seen any. I went home, ordered some 185/2, and experimented. The answer is yes, I can (the thread on my bobbin is 2-ply), but I cannot mercerize the thread so it’s too fuzzy and not shiny enough.

Definitions referred to in the text

Fat-core bobbin: a bobbin that is made with a fatter-than-usual central tube connecting the two ends. You can make a fat-core bobbin by half-filling any bobbin evenly with random yarn, then wrapping a piece of paper around the yarn to give a smooth starting surface. Or just hold a strip of card onto the yarn for a couple of rotations. Or buy some foam pipe insulation with a central hole that roughly fits the tube of your bobbin. I like to have a different (smooth) surface in case my fine yarn starts to sink into the previous yarn, plus I can admire the new fine yarn more easily.

Left: standard Majacraft bobbin and delta flyer on left. Right: fat-core lace bobbin and lace flyer.

Lacing or cross-lacing a flyer: taking the yarn (or the leader, to start with) from the bobbin to a hook on one arm of the flyer, then back to a hook on the other arm [repeat as desired] before taking it to the orifice and out into the world. Each additional hook creates friction that reduces the take-up slightly. You can lace any flyer with hooks. If the one set of hooks is on the other side of the flyer arm I have been told you can put the yarn through a hook, take it under the flyer to a hook on the other side, then back again, but I have not tried this myself. Note that lacing will reduce the amount of yarn you can put on the bobbin: don’t fill to the point that the bobbin is rubbing against the laced yarn.

The ratio of a wheel is the number of times the flyer rotates for each rotation of the drive wheel. The higher the ratio, the more rotations of the flyer. The current Ashford Traditional set up as ‘single drive’ (I think that’s scotch tension) has a maximum ratio of 17:1, which means the flyer rotates 17 times for each rotation of the drive wheel. This is faster than the maximum possible for a normal Lendrum with a top ratio of 10:1. If that is far too slow, then just swap the standard Lendrum flyer for the Lendrum Very Fast Flyer with tiny flyer whorls for a maximum ratio of 44:1 (44 rotations of the flyer for each rotation of the drive wheel).

Take-up: the force with which yarn is pulled onto the bobbin. The flyer of a spinning wheel winds yarn onto the bobbin because the flyer and the bobbin rotate at different speeds. The greater the difference between the bobbin speed of rotation and the flyer speed of rotation, the harder/stronger/faster the take-up will be. The harder/faster the take-up, the faster the yarn is pulled onto the bobbin. Which means less time for you to draft a fine, even yarn, and less time for twist to be added to it before it goes onto the bobbin (the finer the yarn, the more twist is needed to make it competent). All of which means that if you are trying to spin finer yarns, especially weaving yarns or threads, you need to understand how to make sure you can keep the yarn off the bobbin long enough to add enough twist to make that yarn competent.

‘How do I stop my wheel pulling so hard!’

Spinning wheels may be classified according to the way they transfer rotation from the drive wheel to the flyer and the bobbin (in other words, which bits are connected by the drive band). The different ways of transferring rotation mean different ways to control take-up (see the definition above). Here are some suggestions for ways to reduce take-up on different wheels.

On a double drive wheel (not shown in the diagram, I ran out of time!) the drive band forms a figure-of-eight folded back on itself to become two loops. One of those loops goes around the flyer whorl to drive the flyer, the other goes around the bobbin, and then both loops go around the drive wheel. The main control of speed and take-up (the power with which the yarn is pulled onto the bobbin) is slippage, the loss of power caused by the drive band sliding around the whorls instead of making the whorls spin. Thus you can reduce take-up by loosening the drive band (usually by tilting or sliding the mother-of-all toward the drive wheel) to increase slippage. If you want super-fine control consider using a thin, hard-spun drive band such as fine crochet cotton. It is sometimes said that there is a relationship between drive band thickness and the thickness of the yarn you are spinning: thinner and/or harder drive bands have a smaller surface area in contact with the flyer whorl, so finer adjustments may be possible.

Scotch tension wheels
the drive band connects the drive wheel to the flyer
The flyer begins to rotate and the rotating shaft of the flyer drags the bobbin with it, meaning a more gentle start. As the bobbin fills it gets heavier, which means it isn’t slowed so much by the brake band. You might need to tighten the brake band a tiny bit to maintain take-up as the bobbin fills.
To reduce take-up start by loosening the brake band (turn the appropriate knob). You can also lace the flyer and/or use a fat-core bobbin, but Scotch tension offers yet another option: you can change your brake band.
A finer/thinner brake band offers finer control because it has a smaller surface applying friction. I use a fine crochet or tatting cotton for my brake bands. I recommend trying this particularly if you are currently using a monofilament (clear plastic fishing line) brake band. You don’t have to cut or otherwise destroy your existing band, just untie it (even if it’s fiddly) and try something thinner. You can always put the old one back.
Another issue I’ve seen on some wheels is that the spring fitted on the brake band can be too stiff to ‘even out’ tiny differences in take-up. If you’re having no trouble drafting a fine competent yarn but it sometimes breaks for no obvious reason, consider this possibility. I have made improvements by swapping out both Ashford and Majacraft factory springs for softer springs; rubber bands work very well but don’t last long, hair elastics last longer (you can cut and knot long ones to make them fit). I’m currently trialling the spring from a cheap pen on the Majacraft and so far I like it.

My Majacraft Rose showing brake band of fine crochet cotton with a spring from ballpoint pen.

Irish tension or bobbin-led wheels
the drive band connects the drive wheel to the bobbin
Wheels such as the Louet S10 transfer rotation directly from the drive wheel to the bobbin. This means the bobbin is the first thing that rotates (hence the name ‘bobbin-led’) before friction between the bobbin and the shaft of the flyer basically drags the flyer into rotating. So on these wheels the bobbin moves first and it moves fastest, which means it starts with a strong ‘tug’ on the yarn you are spinning. They were designed to spin flax which has a long, strong fibre; wools and cottons have shorter, weaker fibres so fine yarns spun from these are more easily broken by that initial tug.
To reduce take-up and the strength of that initial tug, after loosening the brake with the screw (you can have it so loose that the brake is just sitting loose on the orifice) try any or all of the following: make sure everything is lubricated so the flyer starts moving as quickly as possible; lace the flyer; use a fat-core bobbin.

‘how do I add more twist faster?’

Not all wheels allow you to do this. On some wheels you will have to sit and hold the yarn and treadle until the yarn has enough twist for your needs and you can allow it flow onto the bobbin.

Note: ALWAYS check the amount of twist by examining the yarn on the bobbin. Frictional contact with everything on the route from your hands to the bobbin – the edge of the orifice, the hooks – holds twist back, so there’s more twist in the make between your hands and the orifice than there is in the yarn on the bobbin. You can and should check this for yourself: pull a loop off the bobbin and allow it to ply back on itself, then allow the yarn outside the orifice to do the same thing. The loop outside the orifice will have a slightly tighter twist. So you need to treadle until you like the yarn coming from your hands, then treadle a little bit more to ensure the yarn on the bobbin has the same twist.

Some wheels allow you to alter the speed at which the bobbin and flyer rotate in relation to the drive wheel (the wheel’s ratio), and this allows you to add more twist faster with the same treadling speed*. For example, if the whorl on your flyer has more than one groove, putting the drive band around the largest whorl means the flyer will rotate fewer times per rotation of the drive wheel than if you put the drive band around the smallest whorl. I can’t think of a better way to say that in words. But if it doesn’t make sense, mark a distance on your (flat) floor; 18″ will suffice. Make a mark on a can of tomatoes, then count the number of times that mark comes around as you roll the can the 18″. Now mark and roll something smaller (a pill bottle, or a pencil) the same distance and count in the same way. The smaller thing rotated more times over the same distance because it has a smaller circumference (my primary school teacher would be so proud…). Which is why using a smaller whorl means your flyer and bobbin rotate more times (inserting more twist) per rotation of the drive wheel. ‘Large drives small’ for maximum rotation.

Some wheels also have whorls on the drive wheel, which allows more variation in the ratio. Using the largest whorl on the drive wheel to drive the smallest whorl on the flyer means the flyer is rotating as many times as possible for each rotation of the drive wheel. On Majacraft wheels where the flyer whorl is easily accessible, sticking out above the drive wheel, it is easy to use different flyer whorls to insert more or less twist, or even to add a third whorl between drive wheel and flyer to further accelerate rotation.

*Note ‘same treadling speed’, not same effort. Nothing is free: the extra rotation/twist requires a little more treadling effort to do the work (of rotating the flyer and bobbin faster).

The photo below shows the back of my Majacraft Rose, with the drive band coming from the largest whorl on the drive wheel to the smallest whorl of the high-speed flyer whorl. This is the ‘accelerator’ or ‘high speed’ head for the Rose; the large whorl to the right can be used to further increase the rotational speed of the flyer and bobbin: run the drive band to the small whorl of the accelerator bobbin to make it rotate as fast as possible, then run the accelerator band (not shown in this photo) from the large whorl of the accelerator to the small flyer (you might notice that to do this I have to reverse the position of the flyer whorl). The grease pencil notations are for calculation of ratios in various configurations.

Here’s a reward for reading all the way to the end. Scotland! looking north from ‘The Devil’s Staircase’ (not as bad as it sounds, Conic Hill was far worse) on the West Highland Way.



I am always curious about where and how my creative friends find inspiration for their projects. I listen with awe as someone describes how a major event in their life became an artwork, how specific images and experiences became fabric and stitches that speak without words. I have thoughts I hope to share one day, when I find the images and textures and my mind, hands and eyes have learned more about how to make things that speak. I understand now that everything I make is working to that end. And I am gaining courage with my understanding: if I see something I love, some image or idea, I am allowed to try to make it my own. So, a story.

in which I encounter unexpected delights in Copenhagen
In 2016 we went to Denmark, mostly to see the Vikingskeetmuseum in Roskilde (which is superb), but also to pay my respects to Egtved Girl and other Bronze Age displays in the Danish National Museum in Copenhagen (and eat wonderful food at Torvehallerne). I led my poor husband back and forth through the museum rooms, pursuing trains of thought and interest, returning several times to the display describing ‘The journey of the sun across the sky‘ based on the motifs found on Bronze Age razors and rock carvings throughout Scandinavia. I had vague memories of reading about some of this, somewhere, but seeing the items themselves was gripping. Something about this story, those motifs, caught my imagination, spoke to me. I took photos to be sure I would remember the images but in truth it wasn’t necessary: I have not forgotten the story.
I took other photos, too.

This is ‘Skyrdstrup Woman’, who lived and died c.3300 years ago in southern Jutland.
Less well-known but more evocative for me than ‘Egtved Girl’. Any of these people might be my ancestors.

The journey of the sun across the sky
As summarised on the text of the museum display

At sunrise a [Sun] Fish pulls the Sun up over the horizon from the Night Ship to the Morning Ship.
At noon the Sun Horse takes the Sun from the Morning Ship.
In the afternoon the Sun Horse delivers the Sun to the Afternoon Ship.
As the sun sinks the Serpent takes the Sun and, once it is extinguished, delivers it to the Night Ship.

The captions on this image of the museum display are illegible at this resolution so I’ve summarised them.

Isn’t it a wonderful story? I think of people living by and on the ocean, seeing fish glittering briefly as they catch the light, turning in the water. The waves glitter on the eastern horizon as the sun approaches (see the line of wave symbols on the horizon behind the morning ship as the fish pulls the sun up, up to the surface). And then the sun sinks, dimming (trapped in the coils of a serpent) down into the western ocean to travel through the night and rise again.
But where did this story come from? Is this truly a story from the Bronze Age?
We don’t know. We can’t know.
Since I first read it this has felt to me like a charming storyteller’s tale, a story invented to connect the motifs rather than a story summarised by the motifs. To me this is part of its charm, this proof that humans seek patterns, find stories everywhere.

The images come from razors. Similar (when new) to the replicas shown below, from a website that no longer exists (

The story seems to come from Ships on Bronzes: A Study in Bronze Age Religion and Iconography by Flemming Caul, published in 1998. I can’t find a copy of the book, but the one review I have found doesn’t seem completely convinced by the story. In fact the reviewer points out some rather large flaws. But the motifs are real, the story could be real (I am smiling fondly as I type that) and research into the possibilities continues. I particularly liked Warmenbol’s paper pointing out that in one view (imagine the broad razors in that image turned 180°, broad head to the left and tail curling under the narrowing body to the right) the razors look like a bit like sperm whales, so that the ‘broken ship’ motif could in fact be reference to the razor as sperm whale.

The tale of the razors: how the Bronze Age came to Scandinavia
The journey of the sun may be nothing more than a charming story, but the razors are real. They tell us an almost equally remarkable story. Looking idly for more information about Scandinavian Sun Cycle/Sun Cult imagery I found an article about a ‘golden calendar’, a reinterpretation of the designs on a golden bowl found in a Swedish bog in 1847, which in pursuit of documented links between Sumer, Babylon and Scandinavia included mention of the inscription on an obelisk in Nineveh
“In the search for cultural trading links to Europe and Scandinavia, it seems significant that, on an obelisk in Nineveh dated at about 1850 BC … the following text is found… “on the sea of changing winds my merchants fish pears, and on the sea where the North Star culminates they fish yellow amber”. The first sea must refer to the Gulf of Persia, and the second is likely to refer to the Baltic (because only there is the North Star high to the north, and the shores full of yellow amber…)”
Really? The bronze for the razors came from the Mediterranean?
The Bronze Age of Scandinavia (1750-500 BC) is characterized by the sudden appearance of bronze objects in Scandinavia, the sudden mass appearance of amber in Mycenaean graves, and the beginning of bedrock carvings of huge ships. We take this to indicate that people from the east Mediterranean arrived to Sweden on big ships over the Atlantic, carrying bronze objects from the south, which they traded for amber occurring in SE Sweden in the Ravlunda-Vitemölla–Kivik area.

And the Sun Cult is thought to have travelled north with the bronze.

The Bronze Age in SE Sweden Evidence of Long-Distance Travel and Advanced Sun Cult, 2013, Nils-Axel Mörner, Bob Lind    

I knew the Vikings traded from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean, but this is far earlier.
And even more remarkable because bronze is an alloy of copper and tin: there were Bronze Age copper mines in the Mediterranean, in Cyprus, Turkey and possibly Crete, but the tin often came from Cornwall in the southwestern UK. Tin from Cornwall alloyed with copper on Cyprus, then shipped north to Sweden. Where great ships are carved into the granite, and the jewellery found in graves has the same quadruple spiral ornamentation as the gravegoods in Mycenaean Greece.

Figure 2 from Mörner and Lind’s paper.

I wonder if you share the sense of wonder I feel when I try to imagine some aspects of the lives of these people. We fly across oceans, we travel across the land at speeds unimaginable to them. And yet their work speaks to us, we try to understand them. We invent and reinvent and tell their stories to ourselves, all of us understanding the importance of the sun.

My first sun horse, gold silk on Japanese cotton on a square for a quilt. There will be many more.

The Queen of the Night and an Upstart Cat in Puffling Pants

This story started a couple of years ago when a friend posted pictures of a custom doll, a dog made in memory of a much-loved pet, from one of Jenny Barnett’s kits.<>
I had thought of dollmaking as ‘interesting, no idea how it is done’, but when I saw that dog An Idea sprang full-fledged from my forehead. As they do. I wanted to make a cat, a beautiful blue cat to remember all the cats I loved. Jenny was only too happy to help and in due course sent pics of two blue cat kits, asking which one I wanted. I wanted both. I couldn’t choose. So both kits arrived. And sat on the shelf, because I wanted to make something of my own, not follow the pattern supplied. and I didn’t know how. I bought patterns for small stuffed toys — a bird, a cat, a rabbit –– and made them, revised patterns and re-made them, drafted my own patterns and made my own creatures. I made a teddy bear, I made another teddy bear. I made a hare.

Handstitched and embroidered white cotton hare
Winter Hare, my own pattern cut from an old pillowcase.

The Queen of the Night
I chose the darkest of the two cats. I drafted a pattern for a female body (for some reason the cat spirit was female) and stitched a draft. Modified the draft. Found the fine cotton lawn I’d dyed with indigo last summer, cut the pattern, and stitched.

The body is offered to the head.

I tested the fit and when I was satisfied, I stitched more, in indigo-dyed embroidery floss and fine reeled silks, and the hand of the lawn changed, became stiffer, the figure became more real, more characterful . I spent days thinking about how to attach the arms and legs, whether or not she should have a tail (I decided not, but I’m slowly changing my mind). I thought about jointing, I tested indigo-dyed wooden beads, but in the end I opted for tiny mother-of-pearl buttons and spent hours online to find them. Every thought, every decision, every stitch added weight to her presence until she became more than simply ‘the blue cat’. Welcome the Queen of the Night.

The Queen of the Night

The Queen of the Night should have a cloak to conceal her glory. I found a fragment of blue silk velvet I bought because it was beautiful, spent hours online looking at cloaks and capes, thought and sketched and stitched more. The cloak has a high collar so the Queen’s head is crowned by silver moonlight.

An Upstart Cat in Puffling Pants? Or the Prince of London in Darkness?*
But wait, I hear you say, ‘What happened to the other kit?’
My original cunning plan was to make both cats and send one to tell M that I miss her, but it took so long to make the first cat that I wasn’t sure I’d live long enough to make the second, and it would have to be done exceptionally well because she’s not only a special person, she’s an accomplished sewing person. And a cat person. I cheated and asked if she’d like a doll kit to play with, no strings. She said yes! And that was, I thought, the end of it. I was curious about what she might make of it, but I’d given it to her so it was no longer my concern. I did once say that if by chance it was sitting on a shelf nagging at her, she should send it back; she said she had an Idea but had to work out how to accomplish it.

Time passes. Imagine the fluttering calendar pages.

And then a box arrived. The customs declaration said ‘doll’, and I discovered that adult anticipation is far more complex than that of a child. I remember desperately wanting to know what was in the parcels under the Christmas tree but, holding that box, my anticipation was different. I knew what must be in the box, but … I didn’t know what was in the box. The uncertainty balanced against the certainty that whatever it was would be *wonderful*.

I opened it and collapsed the possibilities. And caught my breath with delight.

An Upstart Cat in Puffling Pants. Or the Prince of London in Darkness.

I posed him with some of the books containing imaginary London. Because, holding him for the first time, I imagined him stalking, cat-arrogant, along the Thames beside The Globe as sunset fades to darkness. He would be acquainted with the Marquis de Carabas, he would emerge from the shadows to assist the Midnight Mayor (should the Mayor require assistance; he often does). He is part of *my* much-loved London made real in my hands, possibly the most thoughtful gift I’ve ever received, and he is one of the few things I would pack in my go bag because that night, after opening the parcel and meeting him, I dreamed of him stolen and I was desolate.

He’s wearing an Elizabethan costume made entirely of glove leather, stitched with copper thread. His doublet is trimmed and ruffed (is that a word?) with black lace stitched with copper. He has more weight, more presence, than the Queen of the Night, and my friend who made him real is Awesome.

* The card had two names for him. ‘An Upstart Cat in Puffling Pants’ refers to ‘Upstart Crow’, a UK sitcom and (with added ‘The’, a play) about the life of Shakespeare. ‘Puffling pants’ is one of the jokes; it refers to the trunk hose, with lining visible between the slashe

He might (also?) be a? the? Prince of London in Darkness. I wouldn’t speculate, he might take offence.

White felt disc hand-embroidered with flowers in brightly-coloured handspun silk

Spinning thread for handstitching, Part II. Spinning silk.

This is what started it all. Spin Off Autumn Retreat 2010. A pile of dyed mulberry silk top and some felt discs on a table in Robin Russo’s class, and the comment that spinning your own silk embroidery thread and stitching a needle case is good fun. So I spun the silk using a top-whorl spindle to insert quite a lot of twist, used an Andean plying bracelet for the short lengths I spun, and used the embroidery stitches I could remember from my childhood. It was good fun. And that was my first gentle reminder that stitching could indeed be fun.

I’ve used this needle case gently for the last 11 years and the silk threads are still in reasonably good shape. 

250x view of blue handspun silk embroidered flower petals showing relative lack of wear.
250X view of some stitches from the needle case to show wear of areas with less twist.

You may be able to see some slight ‘fuzziness’ indicating wear on the areas with very little twist.

Twist is good!
Twist locks the fibres in the yarn together to make a competent yarn: too little twist allows the fibres to slide within the yarn, which will then stretch under tension or even drift apart entirely (don’t ask me how I know this, it’s not a pleasant memory). But tight twist also means the fibres tightly spiralling on the thread are less exposed to wear in any one location on that thread. Tight twist locks the ends of fibres more tightly into the spun yarn. 

But not always!
Uncountered twist makes a yarn — or in this case a thread — that is lively. Most stitchers either add twist or untwist their thread ever-so-slightly with every stitch; if you add twist, you’ll know it because your thread starts tying itself in knots. A lot of twist results in a thread that may not flatten and spread to cover the underlying fabric. It might even stay entirely round, which is good if you’re couching it down, not so good for satin stitch. Like cotton, silk can take a lot of twist before it becomes wire: on average, when in doubt, always add a little more twist to silk.

Choose a yarn structure: sample silk threads
I learn a lot by looking at and handling examples of things to understand how they behave. 
In the image below silk threads are shown at 250x; they’re all from the same shot, split to allow me to name them. The white line indicates a 45° angle. [I’ve spelt ‘Gutermann’ incorrectly: it should be Gütermann. Sorry.]

6 different silk threads photographed at 250x to show twist angle and structure.

Using a needle to unpick the thread and a jeweller’s loupe to see the result I can say the first three (1,2, and 3 in case of doubt) are all 3-ply threads. 4, the embroidery floss, is 2-ply. Why? 3-ply yarns are almost circular in cross-section, so they look much the same diameter regardless of how they lie on the fabric, whereas 2-ply yarn is roughly oval in cross-section: it has a flatter, wider side and a narrower side.
So a 3-ply sewing thread will make a more uniform line of stitches, and being circular and tightly-spun might even move more smoothly through the fabric. The 3-ply Sajou and Soie Perlée stand cylindrical, high and glossy above a ground fabric or other stitches to catch the light and provide structure to a design.
By contrast the 2-ply embroidery floss will lie relatively flat on its flat side and because it is relatively loosely plied (compare the twist angle) it will spread even flatter to cover more of the ground fabric.

5, the 2-ply handspun silk top, is almost as tightly spun as the commercial threads, it’s just a bit thicker. It’s relatively ‘fuzzy’ with a halo of ends around the thread by comparison with the spun reeled silks above it,  but that is not proof that they are reeled and the handspun is spun from silk top: heat is used to burn that fuzzy halo off yarns mill-spun from silk top.

6  I will explain a little later. 

Other factors to consider
Sewing thread and most embroidery threads (leaving aside those attached to the fabric by other threads) have to pass through a fabric multiple times. Fabric is hard on thread. Every slub will catch on the fabric, the leading edge of the slub will abrade more and fray and eventually fail. The slub will enlarge the hole made by the needle, damaging the fabric and leaving the rest of the thread a bit loose in that large hole.
So unless you want texture and are happy to live with the consequences, spin consistent singles and ply consistently. You don’t need a lot of silk to make a lot of thread, so buy the best quality silk you can find. Avoid clumps of short fibres, neps, noils and other annoyances if you can, otherwise pick them out of the fibre as you spin. Or accept the consequences: it’s unlikely to be fatal or even a disaster! Uneven silk thread works well in rustic textiles sewn in the boro tradition, even in relatively precise geometric figures.    
Detail of sashiko stitched with uneven handspun silk.
There is significant variation in thread thickness and the amount of twist. Not my best spinning, but mottanai applies here: use what you have, waste nothing.back of waistcoat showing that uneven spun silk is appropriate to boro repairs.
And it looks perfect appropriate, at least to me.

I have an example of silk embroidery in my historic textiles collection.
undyed linen card case c. 1720 with yellow silk embroidery in back stitch and some satin stitch

This is probably an envelope case to hold visiting cards c. 1720 (dated by the style of embroidery). Undyed linen (note that there are two layers, the outer being a much finer weave) hand-sewn and embroidered with yellow silk. 

photo to show detail of flower and stitches worked in yellow silk on undyed linen card case with insert at 250x to show that the silk is floss, 2-ply.

A slightly closer view of the embroidery including a view of the back because embroiderers always like to see the reverse. The flowers and other details are back stitch, with a simple wrap binding the edges of the envelope. The insert detail shows more clearly the sheen of the silk – after 300 years! – and the structure of the yarn, which is a 2-ply twisted floss. 
And that’s why I tried Number 6 in the photo above, quickly twisting together a couple of strands of silk floss from Pipers Silks in the UK. It works, would work better if I used more strands for a thicker thread. But I’m not going to do that: I want to use that silk as it comes because it is so very beautiful and so very, very challenging.
pack of reeled silk floss for embroidery in various shades of blue with label from Pipers Silks.

I hope that’s enough to get you started. Use the best silk you have, spin evenly, spin reasonably tightly if not very tightly, it’s good fun!

Spinning thread for hand stitching, part 1. What do you want it for?

Talking to someone on FB the other day (an exchange of comments is what passes for conversation these days), I suggested they spin their own embroidery thread. And was asked if I’d done so, and what tips I might have. So I thought I’d start with a brief introduction to be followed by at least three posts about specific fibres and uses.

I’ve used quite a lot of handspun thread for stitching, not just boro textiles but also new garments. Just like any other yarn, when I’m spinning thread for stitching I start by thinking about how I’m going to use what I spin. It is useful to think about these factors even when considering which commercial thread and needle to use for garment repairs.
For example, if I want to stitch seams in a fine, densely woven fabric I need fine thread: a thick needle and a thick thread will break threads in the fabric each time the needle passes through the fabric. If the stitches are small and close together, over time these broken threads will weaken the fabric. If that fine thread is spun from short cotton fibres, it will require quite a lot of twist — be hardspun — to stand up to abrasion.
That fine, hardspun thread will eventually wear through softer spun threads. Traditional sashiko threads are spun softly to avoid damage to soft handspun fabrics.

Will the thread be exposed to wear, for example in boro-style repairs to clothing?
I loved my tabi so much that I wanted the repaired soles to be BEAUTIFUL.
I used embroidery floss and decorative stitching that I could admire while sitting cross-legged on the couch.

embroidery floss used for decorative repair to soles of tabi socks.

Embroidery floss is relatively soft-spun from long-staple cotton. It’s intended for surface decoration, it doesn’t wear well. So the repairs didn’t last long. I should have thought before I stitched.That’s what floorboards do to embroidery floss. But fabric also abrades thread: each time your needle and thread pass through the fabric, the fabric damages the surface, lifting fibres along the full length of thread used. That’s why embroiderers work with short lengths, because over time that abrasion from the fabric changes the character of the thread. If you want to reduce vulnerability to wear, spin a more tightly-twisted thread. Although too much twist will make a stiffer thread that might not lie as flat as you wish. Sample! 

Spring Cleaning

That’s the best way to describe what I’m working on at the moment. Or maybe it’s a cross between Spring Cleaning and Swedish Death Cleaning, because mortality has been on my mind as it has been on many people’s minds for the last year. I’m very aware that I have enough fibre and yarn to last me for several years even if I did nothing but spin and weave, and that doesn’t include the teaching stash. It isn’t overwhelming, I’m not unhappy about it, but at some point in the last couple of months my subconscious resolved that we should do something about it. So I am doing.

The fibre and weaving yarn shelves. Filed by fibre type.
Fabric and purchased knitting yarns (there aren’t many) live in the closet.
There are a couple of stray boxes living behind the loom.

I know broadly what is in every box, whether it is silk scraps for boro classes, commercial cotton yarn, handspun 2-ply wool, dyed braids of luxury fibres, bulk commercial top from UK breeds, washed fleece (no raw fleece), or bast fibre. I am pulling out odd knitting UFOs and unravelling them to send the yarns to people who want to knit things other than lace. More importantly I’m pulling out half-spun projects, finishing the spinning, finishing the yarns, and planning what I will do with them.

For example, as a baby weaver I decided I wanted to make an amazing textile version of a sunset. I bought sunset-coloured hand-dyed mulberry silk tops from any source that had them ( you know where this is going, right?). I didn’t realise that there were people who would sell silk lap as top, or that the quality varies dramatically. I spun silk lap, I spun silk top with clumps of fibre as short as short-staple cotton until I grew disheartened and stopped spinning it. Now I’m finishing it.

Some of the skeins of silk singles that have been sitting in a plastic bag for at least 7 years.

I put the skeins on the big swift, wedged storage bobbins onto the flyer shaft of the Majacraft Rose (one of the reasons I love that wheel), wound on and started treadling. Skein after skein went back onto bobbins and then onto the motor spinner. My ankles ache on good days now: I’m not going to ask them to treadle for plying.

Yarn looks a bit rough on the bobbin.

The plied yarn looks rough (‘a pig’s breakfast’ is more apt) on the bobbin because the singles twist is hibernating: the plying twist is not countered by the twist in the singles, and I have to admit that I am putting in a lot of plying twist. I don’t aim to spin yarns that are balanced (hang in a perfect catenary when they come off the plying bobbin), and this yarn would be even more strongly plied than usual because the singles are duff. But it all comes right-ish in the finishing, when gentle steam revives the singles twist, followed by harder steaming under tension (I pass the skein stretched between my hands over a pot of boiling water) to set the twist of the plied yarn. The first image below looks a bit like pink broccoli, but is in fact a part-steamed skein. Twisted mess before steaming, straight and smooth after. Silk can take a lot of twist without arguing, it just gains lustre.

Far from perfect, but it will do. The weave structure will lock the looser slubs down and reduce the pilling.

I have roughly 1500m of this silk plied, and probably another 1000-1500m-worth of similar low-end silk to spin and ply. And then I have to dig out the dark grey silk/wool blend I have in the stash and decide whether it can be the rest of whatever this will be.

But I am distracted by Teh Shiny. If my eye happens to light on something that I remember desperately wanting to spin, I can spin it. That’s how 1100m of Redfish Dyeworks yak/silk happened a week or two ago. It’s very soft. If it were >1300m it would be a complex lace shawl, but it isn’t so it will be something else. And that is fine. Because life is short and we have to take our fun where we find it.

50/50 yak/silk from Redfish Dyeworks, spun and plied on my Alden Amos motor-spinner.

Making things real (and the value of amuletic stitchery)

I have fallen down a rabbit hole or, more accurately, am sitting in a hare’s form looking up at the stars and sewing. As someone who has believed they hate sewing and are not good at sewing for far more than half their probable lifespan I’m doing a lot of sewing. I have a theory about the reason, but first, some of the results.

Hares. The European Brown Hare is a focus for folklore (for an overview, read Terri Windling’s ‘Following the Hare‘). For 29 years we lived in one of the last areas of the UK where hares are still relatively frequent. From late February on I’d see them in the fields, always at a distance because they are so incredibly alert to danger. Females ‘boxing’ unwanted males, single adults sitting quietly in the sun. Occasionally the mangled bloody remains left by illegal hare-coursers who set sight-hounds (lurchers and greyhounds) on them and bet huge sums of money on the dog most likely to kill.
I love hares. I miss them most in late winter, when for nearly 30 years I’ve been looking forward to seeing them again. I have stitched hares and moons in handspun silk and indigo (the tattoo that completes my sleeve will be a hare-in-the-moon). My first serious attempt at tapestry last year was a tiny hare waiting in the snow for something, worked in remnants of handspun knitting and weaving yarns.

Remnants of lace yarns and handspun silk snow, the hare sits on the snowfield at midnight, waiting.

That was before I made the bears, and before I encountered the works of Mr. Finch. I had seen fabric dolls before, most painfully cute. These are not cute toys. Johanna Flanagan’s dolls (The Pale Rook) are not cute toys. How are such things made?
‘First, catch your hare’… I bought a bird pattern from Ann Wood Handmade and made a Bluebird of Happiness for a friend.

A Bluebird of Happiness worked with affection and silk threads in indigo cotton, random Indian silks.

That was tricky but satisfying. I bought another Ann Wood pattern (in my defence it was on sale) and this time modified the pattern pieces slightly even before making the first Bunny.

An Ann Wood bunny, slightly modified, in cashmere sweater and Liberty Tana Lawn blouse scraps. Very cute, very cuddly.

Now I thought I knew how to do this. I drew a hare, not the best hare ever, and used that shape as the basis for pattern pieces sketched directly on freezer paper (I’d read that being thicker it is better for patterns). The bears and the bird had taught me that finer and closely-woven fabrics in not-slippery material (silk is slippery) are easiest to work with, so I used an old cotton pillowcase from my ‘Indigo THIS’ cupboard.

My original bad hare sketch (no room for the ear on the page), the pattern pieces, and some of the pillowcase I used.

I am pleased. The result is not quite the shape I imagined but, having made it, I know how to change the pattern pieces to make what i see in my mind’s eye. My Winter Hare. 15cm (about 6 inches) high, entirely hand sewn, no armature. It works. I made a HARE. With an enigmatic expression.
I love it.

The tail was a nuisance. Everyone’s first thought — including mine — is a pompom or other soft fluffy thing. Total fail, or at least I thought so.
The Hare is not quite complete as it stands. Eventually it will stand on its own tiny piece of snow, a handspun handwoven tapestry, but I have to finish another tapestry to free the loom to weave that.

I had only the Winter Hare in my head when I started this. Now this is the December Hare, the first of a Calendar of Hares, each a hand-stitched tiny sculpture. I know what the January Hare will look like if I can work out how to cut the pattern pieces. And some of the others are taking shape in my head, too.

Why am I sewing? I have asked myself that question many times, sitting in my chair in the evening making tiny stitches (I wear +3.5 magnifying glasses for some of this work), unpicking those in the wrong place, trying again. I look at my book collection: the Japanese semamori stitches at the back neck of a child’s jacket lacking the line of stitches down the centre of an adult jacket needing two lengths of fabric for the width of adult shoulders, and I think of Sheila Paine’s books charting the meaning of stitch across different cultures. Amuletic stitches, each a tiny wish and hope from the maker for the well-being of the person for whom the item is made. And I know that this is why I am stitching so much: 2020 has been a very bad year. Worse, for myself and my friends in the UK it is the culmination of a series of bad years each of which has been worse and offered less hope than those before it. I feel powerless to help myself, let alone my friends. All I can do is stitch. Tiny precise stitches, each a hope and a wish for better times for those I care for. It’s a very strange and very moving experience to realise that my fingers, my mind and my heart are working together as the fingers and minds and hearts of women have worked together for as long as we’ve had needles and thread to make things for those we love.

With every stitch I wish to mend the world.

Cabbage to his friends

Cavolo when he’s on the dance floor talking to the ladies.

Cabbage because my friend the costume-maker calls her fabric remnants ‘cabbage’ and he’s made from a selection she sent as a birthday gift.

I had thought the burgundy velvet would become a stage bear, glittering larger than life in the spotlight. I drew a new pattern to make his head larger, his body heavier, a little less mild-mannered ‘teddy bear’ and a little more ‘bearish’. By the time I’d finished the head I knew this would be no glittering stage character. I thought he might become a Regency toff, but no. By the time I’d sewn all the parts he’d become a 1960s hip bear, a bear in with the In Crowd. I gave him a silk and lace cravat sewn on with a stickpin to prevent amorous ladies appropriating it as a souvenir, and designed a waistcoat lined with — I have today discovered — a genuine 1960s designer silk.

Like Berwick he’s a button-jointed bear, but Cabbage has Czech glass dragonfly buttons for a hint of psychedelic glitter.

His profile shows his shortened muzzle. He also seems to be a hopeful bear, but not wistful. I think Cabbage is more forceful, more bearish than Berwick.

There is at least one more bear to come — I have the fabric — but I have yet to decide whether the new pattern needs revision and if so, how.
In the interim Berwick and Cabbage are becoming acquainted. I think they make a good pair.

Cloth characters

‘Boro’ and visible mending is fundamentally about the repair and re-use of functional items, but I believe it’s important to remember that there are many possible functions for the things we make by hand. It’s as important to feel loved as it is to feel warm.

A doll made for a Roman child in Egypt AD100–500. Roughly-stitched linen stuffed with papyrus and rags with fragments of wool suggesting hair and a blue bead that might have been a hair ornament.

I try to give my students some idea of the variety of things they can make with scraps of fabric and thread, slow stitching by hand. Bags are good, in fact bags are excellent. Patch your clothes, make new clothes from assemblages of patches. Scarves! Pincushions! Needlebooks! All so very practical. I wanted something more off-the-wall. That Roman doll made from a twisted scrap of cloth made me think about how much we want to give children something tangible to say “I love you” every time they hold it.
Stuffed toys.

Wandering idly around the Internet when I should have been working, I found Ann Wood‘s pattern for a tiny cat figure. I made one from tiny scraps of Japanese quilting cotton and discovered I need more practice making tiny stitches let alone choosing an appropriate fabric for tiny stitches. But the result was cute.

My first attempt at a sewn cat figure

So I tried again, re-drafting some of the pattern pieces for a more complex but more cat-like shape. Despite an even more disastrous fabric choice (scrap damask linen napkins that frayed as soon as I cut the pieces due to linen being SO SLIPPERY) the result was so cute I made it clothing. A Japanese jacket and trousers, because I could. Note that the jacket has a centre back seam because Japanese adult clothing has a centre back seam. And it is lined. And has a gore for the cat’s tail. The trews open at the back and are tied with a drawstring that leaves a gap for the cat’s tail. Both Jacket and trews have genuine patched repairs. I’d say ‘How sad am I?’, but in truth I am not sad: it doesn’t look much like a cat but I smile every time I see it.

Pinterest found Kapital Kountry’s limited edition Teddy Bear that seems to have been sold for USD350 in 2018. Not a child’s toy, more an accessory or collectible, I think.

But… teddy bear. Hmm.

I searched for patterns. So many are ‘Disney bears’ of very little brain and less character. I found ‘Barbara Ann Bears’ selling patterns for much older bears on Etsy and chose ‘Fosdyke’.^1 I have almost no experience making garments, let alone stuffed toys, and I wanted a button-jointed bear rather than the internally-jointed one in the pattern, but managed to muddle through. I stitched ‘boro’ patchwork compositions onto the pattern pieces before assembling them, and experimented with some interesting but philosophically-dubious^2 techniques for distressing fabrics to make them look ‘older’. Note that the result is very definitely NOT child-safe. There are buttons, and beads, and loose fibres. You could certainly make a child-safe bear in this way, but it would be more honest to make the bear properly so the child or children can love it to pieces properly in the traditional manner.

Two quarters of the body sewn together.

As I stitched the pieces together I realised that the pattern really was designed for a mohair fabric, where the pile of the mohair conceals some things and accentuates others. Stitched flat cloth shapes quite differently.

I was able to overcome some of this by using internal stitches to re-shape things to my liking. Bear 1.0, aka Berwick is the result. I did not expect him to be so lovely. Fudging the neck join in lieu of a rotating joint left his head wonky, giving him a wistful air of hopeful affection. He hopes to be liked. I know how he feels.

He even stands upright although this may be short-lived as the soles of his feet round out.

I thought he needed a friend so gave him a pocket mouse and a pocket to keep him safe.

After some time spent admiring Berwick I drew a new pattern to create the shapes I prefer, and to better account for the difference between mohair and flat fabric. I was about to cut it from the same (old hand-dyed Thai pants) fabric when a box of ‘cabbage’ aka scrap costume fabric arrived from my friend in the UK. It included a wonderful burgundy brocade velvet.
Once again i have made a disastrous fabric choice for a novice sewer: it unravels, you can’t mark the velvet side, the velvet *creeps* as the pile moves as I sew, and I sort of forgot/did not realise that velvet is directional and it matters. I have made 2.5 heads in order to get one worth stuffing. But still, glorious. If he comes together as I hope I may make him a waistcoat of velvet embroidered with gold, an antique lace cravat, and name him ‘Liberace’.

A burgundy velvet leg.

^1: Because Fosdyke was a Tonkinese of brief acquaintance and extreme character fulness, ‘the ugliest kitten ever seen’ who so over-flowed with character and self-interest that we had to re-home him after 6 months, before his bullying was the death of our aged Siamese.

^2: ‘boromono’ and mottanai are concepts based on respect for the intrinsic value of fabric, to preserve its functionality as long as possible. Artistically distressing a perfectly decent and useful piece of fabric by cutting holes in it or staining it to make it look ‘used’ is not in accord with the spirit of ‘boro’. But it’s art, so that’s alright. Right?

Reconstructing fabric from Norse Greenland: Tiny Wadmal!

Or, in Old Norse, vaðmál. 
From vað (stuff/cloth) mál, (a measure), because this fabric was a household standard and trade staple in Scandinavia, Iceland and Greenland where wool from local sheep was the primary textile fibre. Know to have been in production from at least the 11th century to the 17th century, pieces of vaðmál meeting strict standards for length, width and quality were legal currency in Iceland and sometimes elsewhere. The definition of the Icelandic ell, the unit of measure, changed over time, possibly as a result of increasing trade with England where vaðmál imports supplied coarse cloths. Elsewhere in northern Europe the definition of ‘watmal‘ or ‘wadmal‘ was broader: a coarse cloth worn only by those who could not afford better. Textiles found in the graves of 14th-century Herjolfsnaes in southern Greenland by Poul Norlund’s 1921 expedition provide a wealth of information about local production of vaðmál and how the garments of that time were constructed.

The finds from Herjolfsnaes and other sites in Greenland are beautifully documented in two modern volumes, Else Østergård’s Woven into the Earth, which includes a detailed description of the vaðmál fabrics, and Medieval Garments Reconstructed with even more information about how to spin the yarn to weave vaðmál fabric to make copies of the garments. I’ve had vaðmál on my mind for a long time so, when Kate Larson of Long Thread Media asked me to write an article for Piecework magazine about stitches from Norse Greenland (published in the Summer 2020 issue of Piecework) and how I’d adapted one of them to solve a problem I created for myself, I spent only one evening playing with wool and modern fabric before concluding that I needed to know how these stitches worked on the original vaðmál. 


Icelandic sheep in Iceland, Diego Delso on Wikimedia Commons

Vaðmál is the best example I know of people making the best use of the fibre produced by their local sheep, which from raw wool found in Greenland resembled the modern Icelandic breed. These hardy sheep are double-coated, with an outer coat (the tog) of long hair protecting the inner wool (the thel) from harsh weather. The hairs were removed from the fleece with wool combs, then further processed by combing to be spun for warp. The softer wool was opened up loosely into a cloud of fibre and spun for weft. The Norse women would probably have plucked the wool from sheep rooing (shedding their fleece naturally) as primitive breeds do; few modern shepherds can do that, so my fleece was shorn. Many shepherds in North American shear twice a year and discard the winter fleece, full of straw and hay, but I was lucky enough to find a ram fleece with a full year’s growth.


Washed Icelandic fleece, 12 months growth. The long outer hair is darker than the softer wool.

I pulled the long hairs out of each lock (I find this easier) and lashed them onto my wool combs.


One of the pair of combs with locks lashed on, ready for combing, plus a handful of the wool remaining once the hair has been removed. Note the difference in colour.

Two transfers removed most of the unwanted short fibres, skin flakes and vegetation.


The combed hair ready to be pulled off the combs. The comb is held down; the loose end of the ‘pony tail’ is pulled gently through a small hole in a diz. Done carefully, friction ensures that all the fibres flow through the hole to become a long loose rope of fibre ready for spinning.

The end result was a lovely length of top, but rather coarse and stiff by comparison with the Wensleydale and Cotswold long wools I usually comb.


Bottom: the long combed hair ready for spinning. Above: the short waste fibre and other material removed by the combing process.

I decided to lightly card the thel and spin from rolags because time was short. This wasn’t the focus of the article, after all!

Vadmal Weff

The warp yarn was a z-twist singles (unplied yarn), hardspun (twist angle of 40°–50°), roughly 1mm thick. The Norse settlers would have spun it on spindles; wheels are faster by the hour, I have wheels and I know how to use them. The coarse fibres created a characterful yarn, somewhat prickly and reluctant to flex. The weft included both down (very short soft fibres from the base of the fleece) and slightly longer wool; spun long draw this blend of lengths tends to create a textured yarn as the longer wool fibres can twist-lock either side of a slub that as a result has to be persuaded to draft down to the desired grist. 

I used a strong gelatine size on the warp but the gelatine did not stick as tightly to the coarse, shiny hairs as I had hoped. It did little to lock the stiff ends of the hairs into the yarn, which meant more friction between the yarn and the heddles and reed. Which in turn emphasized any unevenness in the yarn. The cassimere merino yarn was much easier to weave, 


As I wove I was able to feel the fabric developing, understand how the softer weft beats down to almost cover the coarse, hairy warp. The fleece from THIS sheep would never have been dress fabric — it is too coarse — but it could easily have been outerwear, still a garment, when I’d thought that warp would have been best made into rope.


Not my best weaving, but proof of principle is all I really needed.

I cut the fabric off the loom and began to test seam and edge finishes sewn with reserved warp thread. Woven into the Earth suggests that the longest and, finest tog was reserved to be spun into thread, and I now understand why: stiff thread with many protruding stiff fibre ends DOES NOT lend itself to easy tidy sewing. Nonetheless I persevered. I singled some cut edges, stabilizing them by binding the weft threads with thread running into and out of the fabric (see the article for more information about this technique). I wanted to demonstrate the way tablet-weaving was used to bind and protect hems and other ‘edges’ subject to heavy wear, so I ran a short warp of the warp threads on my small tablet-weaving loom (with thanks to John Mullarkey for this lovely little loom).

Tablet-woven edge treatment on the loom, showing how the weft is used to sew the band to the fabric as part of the band weaving process.

If you are familiar with tablet-weaving you may be able to understand how this works from the photograph. In short, the tablet warp is held close to what will be the outer/visible surface of the fabric. Shorter lengths of weft are threaded into a needle; after passing through the shed the needle-with-weft is taken to the back of the fabric then — the point where this photo was taken — brought back through the fabric ready for another pass after the tablets are rotated to change the shed. The band is sewn to the surface of the fabric as part of the weaving process. It’s a bit tricky to work out the spacing of the weft passes to make the band lie flat on the fabric, but practice makes perfect.

The finished tiny piece of wadmal demonstrating various sewing techniques from the garments found in 14th-century Norse graves.

The end result! Tiny vaðmál!
With Norse seams. The Norse women alive 600 years ago live again as my hands learn from the work of their hands.
Women’s work.

The vaðmál itself is a fascinating fabric and I am slowly processing a much nicer, much softer double-coated Shetland lamb fleece to make a larger sample that might, if I’m lucky, be large enough to be a waistcoat.

A truly lovely double-coated dark brown ‘black’ Shetland lamb fleece from Mctavish Farm Shetlands in Oregon.