22 February 2012

Spinning with Norman Kennedy

On Saturday I took a SEFAA-sponsored all-day spinning workshop with legend Norman Kennedy. If I remember correctly, Mr. Kennedy immigrated in the 1960s from Scotland. He learned many of the old ways of spinning, weaving, and knitting in his native Scotland. Over the course of his long life, he has traveled all over the world and learned first hand the fiber traditions of many different cultures. He speaks Gaelic, and sings the ancient songs beautifully. Talking to him -- and he is more than willing to tell tales through his beautiful accent -- is like talking to someone from 1880.

There are two important things I learned in his class. One is how to make a dang right good rolag, and the other is how to spin in the old way -- effectively (quality) and efficiently (fast).

I've mentioned before that I've been getting better at drafting backwards. In fact, I'm discovering that I really don't care for a forward worsted draft. It just isn't as pleasant to me. This isn't to say that forward drafting is bad, but rather that I enjoy backward drafting better -- sort of the way some people prefer tea over coffee. I did know that backward draw is usually considered a woolen way of spinning. I also knew that rolags are a woolen fiber preparation. But I had never made a proper rolag or spun it.
Beautiful rolags, ready to spin!
Rolags are basically fluffy fiber enchiladas made with hand cards. I've used hand cards some, and I've had several different people give me instruction on how to use them. I think the tricky part for most people is the little maneuver to transfer fiber from one card back to the other. I've carded enough to be able to do that easily. Here are some things I've learned along the way:
  • You don't need to pass cards from one hand to the other, or to change your grip on the cards.
  • You don't want too much fiber on the cards. Believe it or not, it will be faster to card less at a time, because you'll make fewer passes.
  • The right amount of fiber (for me, at least) will, when carded and about ready to be rolled off, cover the cards with a translucent sheer layer of fiber. If the fiber is thick and opaque even after lots of carding, you are trying to do too much at once.
  • Be sure the layer of fiber is loosely floating on the tips of the teeth of the left card before you try to roll the rolag.
  • Place your left hand palm upwards and use the pinky-edge of that hand to hold the fibers as you roll with the right card.
  • After rolling, lay the rolag on the left card and give it a final finishing roll with the right card. You'll be surprised at how nicely this finishes it and makes it stay rolled up.
Those last few points I learned from Mr. Kennedy. He said that a properly-prepared fiber was already half-spun. He was so right! I was amazed at how easily the fiber spun at the wheel. Mr. Kennedy also had us add a little baby oil to our wool after we picked it but before we carded it. The oil helps the wool draft better. But, he did tell us not to spin in the grease -- partly for the wool, but partly for health reasons. If you are spinning in the old way, wash your fleece, then give it back a little baby oil before you card and spin.

At the wheel, Mr. Kennedy spins very differently from what I've seen. I tend to spin with the new yarn coming directly from the wheel to my hands. I usually have my left palm facing up, and I control the fiber with my left index finger and thumb. My right hand holds the fiber supply. Mr. Kennedy had us spin with our palms down. He uses his pinky finger as a brake on the twist. I'm sure I'm not spinning exactly as he does, but here's what I'm doing based on what he showed me. The fiber supply is still in my right hand, and I can stop twist from running into the supply by pinching with my right thumb and index finger. But for my left hand, the yarn runs underneath and against my pinky and in between my left index finger and thumb. The left pinky is a twist brake, both because it rests on the forming yarn, but also because I bend the yarn around it. I draft the fiber at right angles across my lap. Then I lift my pinky and let the twist behind it run past my left hand and into the drafted fibers. It is surprisingly easy to spin a variety of yarn thicknesses at will using this technique. I also found I was drafting quickly enough to be able to use the wheel at a higher (and faster) ratio. And the rolag makes the backward drafting much easier.
I don't know if this will become my default technique or not. I'm very used to spinning with my palms up not down, so I really have to think about keeping my left hand in the proper position. I do know that I already had some woolen-spun alpaca on my mind, so learning to make good rolags was worth the price of the class. If you haven't tried backward draw, I highly recommend making a few proper rolags and then giving it a go.

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