Tag Archives: cassimere

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.


The Cassimere Insanity Part II

The Cassimere Insanity Part II
(Part I is here)

Just a warning that this turned out to be a very long post. I could have said more, though, so it could be worse.

I need to know more!

This is how my everyday insanity progresses. I find something interesting, I ask myself questions about it, I look for answers, I find fascinating nuggets of information that give rise to more questions … and before I realise it I’ve dug myself into a hole so deep that if myth were correct I’d see stars in the sky at midday.

Yerbury’s Patent contains very general information. As a hand spinner I have specific questions that it doesn’t answer.

What was that ‘Spanish wool’ really like?

“soft, good wool, all Spanish or a mix of Spanish and English”
By 1800 Great Britain was importing 5 million pounds weight of fine merino wool each year from Spain. In Sheep and Man Ryder states that the name ‘merino’ was first applied to the sheep in the 15th century, but the breed type can be traced to at least the 13th century. There is evidence of fine-wooled sheep in Roman times, including textiles from 1st-century Italy containing fibres of 16-24 microns. So it’s not unreasonable to assume that by the 18th century ‘soft’ Spanish wool was similar to modern Merino, which is roughly the same range. At some point during all this research I found two manufacturers selling cassimere fabric for re-enactors. I ordered samples from both, but only that from Kochan & Phillips resembled my memories of the fulled cassimeres in the V&A. Sean Phillips kindly advised the use of fine merino, so I used 16 micron merino for this project, which on reflection was almost certainly finer than necessary.

fibre preparation

How were the wools prepared for spinning? Warp for traditional broadcloth (Yerbury’s ‘Common Cloth’) was combed, and probably spun with some type of short forward (worsted) draw for strength, while the weft was carded and probably spun softly woollen to encourage fulling. Yerbury’s ‘New Invention’ has warp and weft spun in similar fashion, and worsted yarns don’t full well, so they were probably woollen or semi-woollen spun. But from hand-carded wool or drum-carded wool?  Lewis Paul’s spinning machine invented in 1738 drove rapid development of carding technology, and in 1775 Richard Arkwright was able to patent a carding machine fundamentally similar to modern drum carders that produced continuous lengths of roving.  Only 10 years later Arkwright was unable to prove his invention had been unique – which suggests there were other carding machines in use at the time – and his carding machine became common property. Yerbury seems the type of man who might well have taken advantage of new technology, so I felt it was reasonable to spin from drum-carded fibre. As I was not spinning a soft and lofty yarn – this had to be strong enough for a singles warp as well as weft – I eventually found it more convenient and faster simply to spin my modern merino ‘top’ (traditional top is produced by combing, but most commercial top we buy today is pin-drafted from carded fibre) from the fold.

spinning and preparing the yarn for weaving

One fundamental assumption based on my general research into historic textiles is that cassimere, like most fine historic textiles, was woven from singles rather than plied yarns; the samples I’ve seen do seem to be singles.

What grist was the yarn for this ‘superfine’ cloth? Superfine by contrast with earlier cloths, so what were they? Textiles and Clothing 1150–1450 speaks of coarse as fewer than 10 ends/cm, good middle quality 12-13 ends per cm, and fine as >18 ends per cm. The authors are writing of archaeological finds, so that’s in the finished cloth. What did it look like before fulling? Crumbs. There’s an entire research program for me right there if I have time. Fulled broadcloth was roughly half its woven width (hence the name: it was broad on the loom) so roughly half that epi?  Sean Phillips discussed cassimere specifications with me, and his suggested grist of 9,000- 10,000 yards per lb (ypp) was similar to what I’d found mentioned elsewhere.

I looked at twist angle in the Kochan & Phillips sample – which was thoroughly fulled – and concluded that I couldn’t conclude anything useful from it, even with a microscope and Mabel Ross to hand.

So I sat down at my Majacraft Rose and started spinning fine singles in the standard clockwise direction. Skeined a sample  – a known length – off the bobbin, weighed it, calculated yards per lb. Fail. Try again.  This was not an easy grist for me to maintain: the fibre was so fine it was easier to spin a finer yarn. If I stopped paying attention the yarn would become too fine; when I then tried for thicker it would be too thick.


But I persevered, wound a decent sample on a control card to sit by the wheel for quick comparisons while spinning and, more importantly, wound off samples and checked the ypp regularly throughout the spinning process. I spun and I spun and I spun and I looked at the yarn I was spinning – so much finer than any handspun wool I’d woven before – and wondered whether it would weave. I am not an experienced weaver. I didn’t want to spend weeks spinning something I couldn’t make into cloth! I stopped spinning, wound off into skeins, steamed them to set the twist and sized them with gelatine to further hold the twist. I don’t have my notes for this to hand so I can’t remember the exact strength of the size, for example, but I have found a picture of one of the cassimere warps drying after sizing in what I call The Sizing Room (everyone else calls it the bathroom).

sized warp

The skein is spread evenly on the chopsticks so as few threads overlap as possible. If necessary I will cut tight skein ties to spread it more widely, as fewer ties are needed once a sized skein dries. I do not mess about with it any further: too much handling will increase the fuzziness despite the size. The milk bottle supplies enough weight to eliminate pig-tails and straighten the yarn, but not so much as to risk stretching it. The plastic separator increases airflow around the two sides of the skein. I try to remember to rotate the skein once or twice to minimize pooling of the size at the bottom of the skein, as this glues some of the threads together; it’s not a fatal flaw but pulling them apart is unnecessary stress and can create fuzz. I am all about preventing fuzz.


I remember thinking it was a good sign that the warp beamed on my Ashford table loom with no trouble at all.


The 45° angle shows I tried hard to beat square!

It wove like a dream. On reflection I should have sett it slightly tighter for a slightly denser cloth “well struck in the loom” as Yerbury phrased it but at this point I had no idea how fulling would affect it.

I wove to the end of the short sample warp, cut it into six pieces, blanket-stitched the cut edges with more of the singles as thread (in case cotton sewing thread interfered with the wet finishing of such small samples). A soak in hot water followed by hand washing removed the size and allowed the fabric to find its shape, which was lovely. Light and warm. But nothing like Yerbury’s cassimere: fabric isn’t finished until it is finished. Wet finished.


Yerbury’s cassimere was to be “smartly grounded at the fulling mill by a quick motion”. Fulling has two purposes, the first being to remove any fats and oils used in processing the fibre for spinning. We’re talking serious oils here, such as rancid butter and fish oils used to grease wool for combing, but fortunately these combine with the ammonia compounds in stale urine to become soap that not only scours the cloth but lubricates it. This aids the second purpose, which is to work the fibres together, starting the process of interlocking wool scales that leads to felting. The fabric thickens, becomes denser and less flexible, also more resistant to wear, and for centuries it was a normal part of the finishing of wool fabrics, converting wide bolts of relatively thin plainweave broadcloth into narrow bolts of water-resistant warm hardwearing fabric. The picturesque ‘waulking’ of cloth in Scotland is fulling by hand, suitable only for relatively small scale fabric production. The Romans relied on slave labour walking in place, trampling the fabric in tubs of ankle-deep urine. Water-powered fulling mills had been in use since the 12th century in medieval England: a stock mill imitated the action of walking feet with wooden stocks driven by a waterwheel working either horizontally or vertically. Modern fulling mills are rotary, uniformly processing immense lengths of fabric. I knew without even asking that no commercial fulling operation could do anything with my tiny samples!

I first tried fulling my sample as I’d fulled wools before, working it by hand on a flat surface. Always in the warp and weft directions, never on the angle as that will deform the fabric. The result was nice to the touch, but far from even and both thicker and less dense than seemed right.

From left: cloth off the loom; washed; fulled by rubbing


So I imitated a vertical fulling mill with a wooden mallet wrapped in plastic. The remaining three samples were wetted, lightly soaped and then fulled by incessant (or so it felt) tapping with the mallet on our kitchen counter. It worked. It more than worked, it made a lovely fabric, dense and light and very different from the hand-fulled sample. If you’re at all interested in fulling, you should try this technique.

So that will suffice. What next? Raise the nap: brush to raise fibres from the surface of the fulled fabric. In times past teasels mounted in wooden frames might be used for this, and it was skilled work. I used a nailbrush and would not call myself skilled, but the fabric developed a lovely soft halo of fibres.

After the nap was raised it was sheared or cropped. Shearsmen were probably the most highly skilled of all the craftsmen involved in this process, able to crop a uniform finish by eye on yards of fabric using huge steel shears. Fabrics were often napped and sheared repeatedly to obtain the smoothest possible finish.shearman

Fortunately I had tiny shears (my embroidery snips) to match my tiny piece of fabric.


I love this piece of fabric. It’s delightful. Not as densely woven as the 18th-century swatch I saw in the V&A, but still cassimere. It’s light, warm and the singles woven in twill structure make it remarkably stretchy. But each time I handled the swatches I ended up admiring the second one, the plain washed fabric. Still flexible, but soft and smooth with a lovely drape. I wondered what it would feel like as a larger piece. I had more fibre, I could find out. For speed I spun the singles for this fabric from the fold and thinner, which I found easier. Roughly 11,000ypp, roughly 13 yards spun per 5 minutes while watching tv, so could have been faster.

The full set of samples from the first cassimere warp: from right, loom state; washed; fulled by rubbing; fulled with a mallet, no further finishing; mallet-fulled, nap raised; mallet-fulled, nap-raised and sheared. Plus my control card and a sample skein spun for the second cassimere warp.


I spun, I skeined, I sized as before. I wound a shorter but much wider warp and wove it off sett at 48epi (it wrapped at 72). Soaked in hot water, washed and ironed, it had a subtle sheen and draped beautifully.


By the twentieth century it seems from catalogue descriptions of fabrics and garments that almost any wool twill could be described as a cassimere so, while this isn’t Yerbury’s patented cassimere, it’s still a cassimere.  And once I’ve spun the current big bag of silk, I’ll be spinning to make more of it.

The Cassimere Insanity Part I

If you’re visiting because you’ve heard about my article A Brief History of an 18th-Century Woven Cloth: Cassimere in the Winter 2019 Spin Off, welcome.

Honestly, that’s what it is, insanity. I just didn’t realise it until I’d dug the hole too deep to climb out:
I had to keep going all the way to the other side.

I am deeply curious about how yarns were spun in England before the Industrial Revolution. In the Middle Ages England was the leading producer of woollen textiles in Europe: across a wide swathe of the country you can still see the ‘wool churches‘, magnificent structures paid for by the profits of the medieval wool trade, which is to say people buying and selling wool fibre, yarn and fabrics. ‘The medieval wool trade’ … four words that encompass centuries of skill needed to breed sheep producing different types of wool, to develop the hand spinning, dying, weaving and finishing skills to spin the different types of yarn needed to create different cloths that could then be finished to create some of the most beautiful and desirable fabrics known in Europe at that time. In England at that time skilled hand spinning was so fundamental that we have little information about how fibre was spun except in illustrations: everyone knew how to spin, so there was no need to document it. Nonetheless surviving fabrics can tell us something about the fibres and skills used in their construction.

the beginning

In 2014 I was invited to be one of the spinners demonstrating techniques at John Styles’ ‘Spinning in the era of the spinning wheel’ workshop at the Victoria and Albert Museum Clothworkers’ Centre in London. Historians and fibre arts handworkers met to discuss the making of an array of fabrics from the V&A’s immense collection. One of the items on display was a book of fabric samples, ‘T.350-1989: Bound sample book containing different types, qualities and colours of cassimere or kerseymere cloth.’ I’d first seen cassimere (also known as kerseymere) mentioned in Kerridge’s Textile Manufactures in Early Modern England as a cloth invented by Francis Yerbury and patented by him in 1766; I remembered it because of the name, which I had read somewhere is thought to have been derived from ‘cashmere’ to reflect its softness, and because it had never occurred to me that a fabric could be patented. And now here it was in front of me, or at least examples of what were known as cassimere in 1795.


Note that my finger is NOT TOUCHING anything.
It’s hovering about 1cm above the fabric to give some idea of scale.

I was entranced. Moths and time had removed some patches of the surface fibre from one swatch (the one I photographed), revealing the twill structure and the beautifully-spun yarn. There were many other wonders spread out on the tables, but I left the workshop determined to find out more about this thing called cassimere. Kerridge focuses on the history of textile manufacturing, not the textiles themselves, and mentions cassimere again only as being responsible for bringing weavers into employment in large workshops, which was “possible because the looms were narrow and necessary because the weaves were new and intricate [compared with earlier standard weaves].”

The search for information

The internet rapidly made clear that cassimere/kerseymere continued in production until the 20th century and beyond, but also that these were very different fabrics from that patented by Yerbury… Aha! The patent! We were now living in Canada, so I couldn’t just pop down to the British Library in London. I emailed the Business & IP Centre asking if there was any way I could find a copy online, and will be eternally grateful to the  staff member who noticed I was writing from Canada and sent me a PDF.

Yerbury’s patent YerburyPatent1766-1

Page One of Yerbury’s patent.

Greetings from the 21st century, Francis. But I wish you’d given me more information! The meat of the patent is on pages 2 and 3, where Yerbury’s ‘New Invention’ is contrasted with the ‘common method of making cloth’. In short:

Common cloth warp is spun with a lot of twist, the weft with as little twist as possible and about 2/3 thicker than the warp, and the two should have different twist directions in order that they interlace tightly when woven. The fabric is a plain weave and the final fulled cloth is thick, water-resistant and durable.

Yerbury’s new Invention warp and weft are spun in the same manner “nearly about the same degree of smallness, weight and twist”. There is no specific weight or thickness of yarn but it should be spun from soft, good wool, all Spanish (i.e. merino) or a mix of Spanish and English. He describes two kinds of cloth distinguished in the weaving; one is clearly a straight twill, right or left; the other “quilled in the weaving with a flat whale [wale]” defeats my current understanding. According to the Google Books preview of The Dictionary of Fashion History, Beckinsale’s The Trowbridge Woollen Industry mentions only twill weave for cassimere.

Yerbury developed his new ‘cassimers’ fabrics to fill a niche in the market, which at that time was virtually crying out for lighter wools suitable for wear in warmer climates. But on the third page of his patent he mentions another reason for devising an innovative fabric: not only was the common cloth “hot, inconvenient and heavy for the summer wear at home and warmer climates abroad”, but it “hath also been introduction of many slight and whimsical things from our great rivals in trade the French”. In other words, the French were saying rude things about heavy, traditional English broadcloth.

So this is how I discovered cassimere. In Part II I’ll tell you how I found more information and began spinning.