I’ve posted very little spinning content on my blog in the past few months (bad BlackSheep!) but I’ve been doing odds and ends of spinning, test samples for various projects and people. I started spinning this BFL pencil roving I dyed back in the summer and it’s been sitting on my wheel taking up bobbin space whilst I do the oddments and the longer I leave things, the less I feel like finishing them. Which is a shame really because BFL is one of my favourite wools to work with and these are some of my favourite colours.
I’ve got more sample spinning to do soon though and potentially quite a big spinning project to fit in with someone else’s schedule which needs me to clear all my bobbins. So although I have a brand new wool I dyed yesterday that’s begging me to start on it, I’m being good and finishing the BFL crepe first!
One of the reasons I had been delayed is that I’d started spinning this with the general idea of blogging about it because this is outside my “default spinning” on two counts and I thought it might be interesting to look at it and why I chose to do this. I’ve had hand dyed BFL pencil roving in the shop this summer and it’s fun to knit with as chunky yarn, I’ve woven it for a friend as a show sample for her lovely hand dyed pencil rovings but I’d not actually got around to spinning it myself. Having spun up the first two bobbins a while ago, I needed the time to photograph the final bobbin and samples for the blog and just couldn’t find the time. So I apologise for the poor lighting of the following photos, but it’s a very murky overcast October day here and I also really needed both hands to spin with which makes it tricky to take photos – you really need a helpful assistant. Or three hands!!
Pencil roving is one of the stages of creating commercially spun yarn so, unlike the usual much fatter tops and rovings we spin from, it has a slight twist in it. This twist is in the clockwise direction, also known as “Z” twist. For anyone unfamiliar with the term Z (and S) twist in relation to spinning, it’s called this because if you look at it the angle of the twist is like the middle section of the letter Z – slanting to the right. Imagine a Z overlaid on the roving below.
Twist in the opposite or anticlockwise direction is known as “S” twist because the angle is like the middle section of the letter S.
Spinners commonly default to spinning their singles in the Z / clockwise direction before plying two or more singles together in the anti-clockwise direction to balance and stabilise the yarn. An S-plied yarn works well for English style knitting where the yarn is carried in the right hand and “thrown” (as opposed to Continental style knitting where the yarn is held in the left hand and “picked”) because as you carry your yarn, a tiny amount of twist is added. For English knitting the twist can slightly unravel Z-plied yarns – some people feel this isn’t a problem but my first attempt at spinning a cable yarn was Z-plied and it was very irritating to knit with as the chunky handspun wasn’t that tightly plied and did indeed unravel as I knit – lesson learned!
To make pencil roving with its inbuilt Z twist easier to spin, it helps to unravel that twist slightly as you draft and makes it easier to handle. Spinning the singles in the Z direction as normal adds twist and means you can end up fighting what’s already in the roving and locking the fibres together – a frustrating spinning experience. So spinning it in the S direction helps to unlock the latent twist and is generally much smoother to draft.
However that does mean you end up with a finished yarn that will be Z-plied … my English-style knitting nemesis from before! So I thought it would be fun to use this for a crepe yarn which is a 3-ply yarn that has 3 stages to it and would allow me to spin 2 of the singles in the S direction and still end up with S-plied yarn at the end for me to knit with. Cunning?!
For detailed information on spinning crepe yarns – or any yarns in fact – I strongly recommend you borrow or preferably buy a copy of the Spinner’s Book of Yarn Design by Sarah Anderson. Sarah is a wonderful teacher both in person and in writing and this is my go-to book when working with yarns other than my standard repertoire. This blog post is more about spinning crepe yarn from pencil roving than a basic crepe yarn tutorial. Really well worth having “…Yarn Design” in your spinning library.
You can spin crepe yarns in either direction but for the sake of the pencil roving subject matter I’m using the following formula: 2 singles spun in S (anticlockwise) direction plied together with twice the amount of plying twist in the Z (clockwise). A third single is spun in the Z (clockwise direction) and then you ply the Z single and the Z 2-ply yarn together in the S (anticlockwise direction) to make a balanced crepe yarn. Got that? Yup, go buy the book – it’s worth it!
So you need your fibre divided up roughly into three sections. I did this by weighing the skein as I wound it into three balls to spin from. As you spin, the twist you release is going to back up in the roving closer to the ball of wool. You can see it twist the roving behind where I’m pinching it off.
You need to release that twist somehow so I find it helps to break off a section of roving (around 60cm is workable for me but you can go longer or shorter) . You won’t be able to pull tightly twisted roving apart so where you want to break it off, hold the fibre between your hands and untwist it so that the fibres lie parallel instead.
And then pull them apart, they should drift quite easily…
The twist will be sitting there but you can then shake it out and let it unravel ready for drafting.
Another tip for drafting pencil roving is to roll it between your fibre (back) hand as you draft to release the twist as well – this definitely applies to spinning in the Z direction but it helps in the S direction too. (I hold fibre in my left hand but more spinners use their right hand for the fibre supply, so don’t swap over if you do the opposite to me – just carry on as you are!)
As you spin you can control the fibre supply between the heel of your palm and pinkie/ring fingers …
…which leaves your thumb and forefinger free to control the draft action as usual – at this point you can add a sneaky little roll of your thumb to the right to untwist it and then draft.
When you have your S-spun singles ready to ply, remember that you will need twice the amount of plying twist to a normal plied yarn. Italics because this is important!! You don’t want a balanced yarn at this stage because you need latent twist in it to cancel out the twist when you ply it with your final (third) single. This is trickier than you’d think to maintain over the length of the spinning so it might help you to allow a fresh single to twist back on itself for a few inches to create a wee sample to have by you.
You will need twice the amount of twist to this in your plying – and yes it will feel very odd over-twisting your yarn!! This sample will be handy to check whether you have sufficient twist or if you’ve slipped back into making a lovely balanced yarn out of habit!
The twisty pigtail yarn pinched between my finger and thumb is about right. The balanced (but wrong!) sample is next to it on my hand for comparison.
So you will fight your instincts and ply a bobbin-full of overtwisted yarn in the Z direction.
Aargh. Keep going. You can check twist by allowing a little of the yarn to ply back on itself to see how it balances out. If it’s under plied, add more twist. If you end up spinning a whole bobbin without enough twist then you can run it back through your wheel in the same direction to add a bit more – but it’s better to get it in there the first time if you can.
Now you’ll need to spin your third single in the Z direction. This will be harder from pencil roving because of the twist in it but using the tips above – short lengths and rolling it – you’ll be fine. And it’s only one single…
Finally you get to see the results of your labour. Time to play … I mean ply!
You’ll need your Z singles on one bobbin and your Z plied yarn on another. If you’re spinning all this in one session then the yarns might be a bit springy so tensioning your bobbins may help. On the other hand, if your singes/yarn are stale, they may be easier to ply but you won’t see the crepe snapping into place which can help with judging the amount of plying twist. It’s up to you and how much time you have to spin in one session; both ways have bonuses and drawbacks.
This is quite a poor photo of the sample yarn I’m afraid but it does show the characteristic bobbly effect of the finished crepe technique. Crepe yarns are great fun to spin and you can do different texture and colour variations with them to add to the fun!
The finished yarn:
You can use the above tips for spinning ordinary 2-ply yarns too or maybe you can think up some other ways of using pencil roving? Plying it with a glittery commercial thread or using it as a base for other art yarn techniques would be really good fun too!
I’ve just a few skeins of pencil roving left in the shop at BarberBlackSheep – which is why I spun this sample in the first place! – but it’s also occasionally available from other UK dyers too should I have sold out when you want to try some crepe yarn fun yourself!