Spinning Terms: Woolen Versus Worsted

This is part of a sometime series of posts that defines some terms and ideas related to spinning.

The first thing you have to understand is that “woolen” and “worsted” in the context of spinning does not mean what it does in the context of knitting, so just toss all your preconceptions out the window.  Worsted yarn and the worsted style of spinning are not the same thing.  “Worsted weight” yarn does not refer to the style of spinning but to the size/width/weight of the yarn. Yes, I know that it’s awfully confusing that they chose to use the same word, I’m sorry!! Don’t think about this as “worsted yarn” think of it as a style of spinning that happens to have the same name.

Worsted Spinning

Worsted spinning uses fiber prepared very particularly, so all the fiber is the same length, all the cut ends are facing the same direction and all the fibers are totally parallel.  Usually this is done by hand with combs or flicks, to spread out the fibers in the locks, but still keep them VERY, VERY organized.  Worsted is spun using the short draw or the “inchworm” method of spinning. In my strange little head I think of this as the “military” version of spinning.  Meaning that everyone is in their place, standing straight and tall, no questions asked, no deviations allowed.  Worsted spinning is tight, usually fine, smooth and not very soft.  The goal in worsted style spinning is to allow very little air between the fibers so it has a smooth dense appearance.  It will be strong but have a much harder “hand” than woolen spun yarns.  These types of yarns are not going to felt as much, or pill as much, but you really don’t want it next to your skin. This type of yarn works well in weaving.

Woolen Spinning

Woolen spun yarn uses fiber that is carded, either by machine or by hand, and the fibers are pretty much going every direction.  They are basically parallel, but not fanatically.  This feels to me like the “occupy wall street” version of spinning.  Everyone is there for the same reason, but still doing their own thing, not regimented in any way.  Woolen fiber is spun using the long draw method, and produces a “loftier” (or puffier) yarn that is softer and will keep you warmer because of all the trapped air.  This is like that yarn you snuggle up to in your LYS and go “ahhhhh” because it feels so good and is light and fluffy and wonderful. But it will pill like crazy, and won’t take a lot of wear and tear.

My Spinning

I like to think of these two styles of spinning as the two extremes.  99.9% of the time, 99.9% of spinners, are spinning neither woolen nor worsted.


Spinning is something most of us do for fun, enjoyment, and relaxation.  Our lives don’t depend on it, and we aren’t being watched by the “Yarn Police.”   As a result we do not prepare our fiber fanatically, and when we spin we use both the long and short draw.  Some people spin “more-wooleny” others spin “more-worstedly.”  Where your spinning falls along the continuum shouldn’t be important to anyone other than you.  If you are spinning something out of a long coarse fiber to use on a loom, you will probably spin closer to a worsted style.  If you are spinning something out of an alpaca, wool, silk mix to knit a pretty hat for a favorite friend you will more than likely spin more woolenly.  The bottom line question to help you decide how to spin is:  What do I want the yarn to end up looking like?  That will determine how the fiber is prepared, and how you spin it.

Another question you might ask yourself, if you don’t have an end result for the yarn you produce, is: How does the fiber feel like it should be spun?  After you have a bit of experience most fiber will tell YOU how it wants to be spun, you just have to play along.

Woolen Versus Worsted

I recently spun some lovely Coopworth.  This yarn was used to knit a sweater for my younger brother.  He lives in Maine and spends a great deal of his time outside in the winter.  He appreciates a good wool sweater, and will wear it a lot.  He doesn’t care how I spin it.  What he cares about is that it is warm, doesn’t pill too much  or get stretched out of shape, and that it lasts a good long time. Trust me I won’t be spinning him another sweater anytime soon.  Still trying to figure out how I talked myself into this one!!    I am spinning it more-worstedly because loft isn’t really all that important.  It will be woolenly enough to be warm, but worstedly enough to keep it’s shape and last a long time.

I recently spun some multi-purple fiber into a thick and thin yarn to use as an accent yarn in a project.  This was spun more woolenly because the use I had for the yarn was to look pretty, feel soft, and it won’t get much wear.  It’s only a small accent so the fit of the garment is not depending on the construction of the yarn.  I was going for a look and a feel, and so woolenly made more sense.

Sometimes when I sit down to spin I don’t have a particular project in mind.  I am just spinning.  Even when I do that I make a choice about which way my spinning will lean. I don’t really think “woolen versus worsted” per say but I ask myself: Will this be a good yarn for a shawl, or socks?  Will it be soft and pretty or a “work horse” yarn?  I think about this, almost unconsciously at this point, and my decisions works hand in hand with what the fiber is whispering in my ear, to inform my hands to do what they need to do to get the result we are looking for.

If you are a new spinner the best and worst advice you can get is “practice more!”  It’s the worst advice because you don’t want to have to practice more, you want your spinning to be effortlessly perfect, NOW.  It’s the best advice because it means you have a build in excuse to spin MORE! But really, the best and only way to consistently spin better and better is to practice.

HOORAY!!! I think I will go spin now.

Spinfoolish Designs Shop is open!

So for a while now I have been buying raw fleeces of many kinds and having them prepared for spinners. Some of them are from just one kind of critter, and others are lovely blends of two or more critters.  And the good news is that I finally have enough, and of the quality I feel is good enough to sell them to people. The Spinfoolish Designs Shop is open!

I get lots of help skirting the fleeces, as you can see!

I get lots of help skirting the fleeces, as you can see!

It takes a certain amount of skill to blend fibers appropriately, and while I am no expert, I am pleased with most of my experiments.  These are all fibers that I have sourced from friends or local farms and I have spun with each of these rovings,   so I know they are excellent.

I have been doing some forays into dying as well, but those are just small batches (4 or 8 oz) at a time so while they are lovely, I am not ready to sell those on the website yet.  You can certainly find them when I sell at shows (next one will be The Knotty Ladies Yarn & Fiber Gathering) or if you want to contact me directly, but in the shop right now you can only find the natural colors.  Frankly, I like the natural colors better anyway!  They are so varied and so rich!

Please take a look at the Shop Page, and let me know what you think.  I am so pleased to be able to finally share what I love so much!


Spinning Terms: Processing Fiber at a Mill

This is part of a sometime series that defines terms and ideas related to spinning. This is Processing Fiber at a Mill.

There are two ways you can get processed fibers to spin with.  Either you start with the raw fiber and send it away to a mill to process it for you, or you buy fibers already processed for spinners from any number of places.

Mill Processed Raw Fiber

When you start with raw fiber and you don’t choose to take care of it yourself you can send it to a mill to wash and card for you.  They will even dye it or spin it into yarn for you, although for me that kind of defeats the purpose. each thing they do (wash, card, dye, spin) increases the cost of the fiber, so it is more expensive than dealing with the raw fiber yourself.  In fact milled fibers have a long list of positive and negative attributes.


Echoview Fiber MillThe fiber is clean and carded – all you have to do it start spinning.  This is a huge plus for me, because while I enjoy dealing with raw fibers, when you get right down to it, the best part is the spinning.  Having someone else do the heavy lifting of washing and carding means a lot to me.

You get the excitement of it being “your” fleece, but not having to put in an enormous amount of sweat equity to deal with the nitty gritty of washing and carding 4 whole pounds of fiber on my own!  (An average skirted fleece weighs about 4 lbs, but can vary by breed.)

Mills can blend your fiber for you in a pretty scientific manner.  When I hand blend fiber I TRY to make it 80/20 (meaning 80% of fiber A and 20% of fiber B) but it’s not a very exact science for me and so while it’s pretty close, some parts will be more uneven than I would like.  Big mills are much better at it than I am, especially with large amounts of fiber (i.e. more than I can get on my drum carder at one time).

Most mills will provide you with fiber to blend with yours.  If you have some BFL (Bluefaced Leicester) but want to spin some sock yarn you can ask the mill to blend your fiber with some nylon in order to make the perfect Sock yarn (in my opinion!) Most of us don’t have blend-able nylon fiber lying around our homes.

Because the mills work in bulk they use different sort of chemicals than I use in my own workshop (I use Dawn detergent, most mills don’t.) Some people might see this as a bad thing, but in my experience most people who own fiber mills care deeply about the environment, so it’s unlikely that will use something terribly caustic, and when I get milled fiber back it always feels softer and nicer than when I card it myself.  This could be a sensory illusion brought on by relief that I didn’t have to card 8 lbs of Cotswold all by myself, but I think it’s true.


Milled Fiber - beigeSome mills don’t always communicate well, with you or with themselves.  As a result it’s possible for them to blend in the wrong percentages, or blend the wrong fleeces together.

Some mills don’t communicate at ALL!  A friend send a fleece off to  a mill and when she had waited an appropriate amount of time called to ask when it would be ready, only to hear “Oh, I wondered who that fleece belonged to!”  This is NOT what you want to hear!

If you hang out with people who use mills long enough you will hear horror stories about fiber that came back from a totally different species of fiber animal, or fiber that was infested with some bug or another, or fiber that was lost completely.

It seems to be that dying could be a con, although I have never had any personal experience with that.  It seems to me that doing my OWN dying seems to be a total crap shoot 99% of the time, so trusting someone else to create a color that I am holding in my head and make it color fast and lovely is totally impossible and beyond foolish to try.  But that’s just me.

When you get right down to it the biggest downside to sending your fiber to a mill is that something can go wrong.  For whatever the reason it goes wrong, when it goes wrong, it is devastating.  The majority of us have a limited supply of fiber.  You only get one fleece from that animal in one year if you own the flock, or you can only get it from a farmer once a year after shearing.  So when it goes wrong, man, it is BAD.  And there is nothing you can do about it. Once it’s done, it’s done.

When you hear stories about how badly it can go wrong it can really scare you about using mills.  I understand that, I really do.  But this is my philosophy:

My Mill Theory by Spinfoolish

1. Use mills.  If you don’t use mills they won’t make any money and they will go away.  If the mills go away then you will HAVE to wash and card on your own. I don’t want to have to always wash and card each of my fleeces for the rest of my life, so I support mills!

2. Use Local Mills.  If you have a local mill, give them a try.  If you get burned, go elsewhere.  Voting with our fleeces will eventually get rid of the bad mills and help the good mills thrive, but starting local can help both them and you.

3. Ask around.  Everyone has a favorite or a horror story, so ask EVERYONE then sort through it on your own. Research the mill on line, see what they say about themselves – if they say they specialize in wool then don’t send them alpaca! Be sensible.

4. Do your homework.  Does the mill have a list of what you should do to send a fleece?  Do they have rules about weight, or cleanliness?  Do they want you to tag the fiber a certain way.  Make sure you KNOW what you need to do and get it all done in the way they want it done.  It may be annoying, but it will be more likely to avoid problems later.

5. Communicate.  I am probably hated by the mills I use, but I make SURE that I have communicated with them not only in the way THEY need, but in the way I need as well.  If that means phone calls, emails and smoke signals, then that is what I do.  I take down names. I might drive them crazy but I refuse to lie awake at night worrying or have it all go wrong when there was something I could have done to make it go all right.

But in the end…

Sigh. In the end, no matter what you do or don’t do it’s either going to go well, or it’s going to be a disappointment.  Once I have done everything I can: I have asked around and chosen a good mill, I have done my homework, sent a good fleece, and communicated as much as I can – then at that point you have to let go.

That’s my final word to myself.  Once I have done everything that I can and should: then I have to just accept what happens.  Sometimes you are the bug and sometimes you are the windshield.

When it goes badly I try to learn from my mistake, whether it is communication, mill choice or just plain stupidity, so I don’t repeat the mistake.

When it goes well, ahhhhh, when it goes well my friend, I am joyous and happy and all is right with the world.  I really like it when it goes right.