A Spinner’s Toolbox with Judith MacKenzie

Shortly after I began spinning I bought a copy of The Intentional Spinner. I did not get far with it. It was technical. It scared me. If only I had purchased the copy with the DVD included!

Judith is a first class teacher. A Spinners Toolbox has enabled me to return to the book – which I had already unearthed and was by my bed – and to make far more sense of it. But it has done so much more than that for me!

This may be the key video. I bought it last year and have to confess that yesterday was the first time that I had watched it. Actually, I have yet to finish it (it’s a long one – run time 142 minutes). I am kicking myself for not making time to do this sooner. It’s the Damascene road for the “I always spin this way” spinner.

The Spinners Toolbox  is a set of six drafting methods. Unlike Abby Franquemont’s laid back spectrum from Worsted to Woollen, Judith’s six methods are discrete and one might say more prescriptive.

The drafting styles are:

  • Worsted
  • Semi-worsted
  • Woolen
  • Semi-woolen
  • Slub
  • Bouclé

– so immediately one can see the further value of this video over Abby’s.

The presentation style is relaxed, as Abby’s was, but oh-so-different. Abby’s video felt a little like being in a classroom or lecture hall. It was relaxed, warm and friendly, but very much a performance – it felt as though Abby was speaking to a wider audience than just myself. The Spinner’s Toolbox feels like a one-to-one master class – the style is gentle, quiet, relaxed… and very personal.

Judith is very much coming from a technical perspective, but do not allow that to scare you. She speaks plain common sense, and explains the nuts and bolts in plain language (and visuals) but she does deliver the why’s and the wherefore’s; and with understanding comes control – and confidence!

I learned an enormous amount in the course of one afternoon and this is a video that I will return to again and again. I believe that each return will provide me with something new, as my inherent understanding increases. It’s a godsend, this video, for those of us with absolutely no chance of ever attending a class in person.

It’s not cheap, but it is worth every penny – to me, at least. The download version is $29.95.

What do you get for the money? Well, a great deal more than simply six drafting methods. With a technical textiles expert and experienced spinner and teacher on hand it was never going to be just six drafts.

Brace yourselves, dear spinners, it’s largely about the prep.

This was something that I did not want to know. Of course, the realisation has been growing in recent months, but the fact remains – I am an impatient spinner. I want to sit and spin and get instant gratification. I do not want to think about spending more hours in prepping my fibre than I spend in spinning it  (and then, there is the finishing too!) I learned to spin straight from a raw, greasy fleece. Sit down, grab a handful of fleece, tease it out and spin it. No fuss, little prep. Card only when really needed.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Cottagers and crafters have spun that way for hundreds… thousands of years. Worthy yarn is produced. But only the one yarn, and I want to be able to produce the right yarn for the end product.

Over the last couple of years I have come to realise that I prefer my yarns when I make them from a washed fleece. The finished yarn is more alive somehow. Judith may be pushing at an open door – but will I ever have the patience that she displays in carefully separating individual locks, sorting them by length, washing them in a handkerchief, combing them and setting aside the seconds for another yarn, dizzing a roving from the top quality stuff on the comb…. and all before ever sitting to spin.

There was a revelation – Tops – must be named such as they are the top quality fibre – the best that the fleece can yield.

Judith includes a great deal of information about plying and finishing the yarns resulting from the six drafts and there is a marvellous section on things to do with slubby singles. She makes it all look very easy and it is highly inspiring.

There is so much in this video – Judith speaks constantly and with not a single word wasted. It is chock full of simple tips. Two tips that I intend to remember are:

1) that for woollen spinning the singles are underspun, and then over-plyed, dropping a notch on the whorl to do so, and that the yarn needs a robust finishing technique

2) and that worsted yarns require the opposite – more spinning, less plying, increasing a notch on the whorl to do so, and just a gentle wash.

Having watched much of The Spinner’s Toolbox, I returned to my long draw woollen spinning practice. The tips that I picked up immediately improved what I was doing. I am already looking relatively competent and the fibre is no longer shedding all over the floor. Now, what better recommendation could there be?

I would have to recommend this video over Drafting, the Long and Short of It – it is considerably more expensive but probably provides better value for money in the end. However, if you can have more than one, I’d say get both. Each teacher has something distinct to offer and if you learn in the way that I do, those slightly different explanations of a single concept do tend to help the understanding.

One learning point that I need to take from both Judith and Abby is the use of the ratios to govern the thickness of the single. I have tended to spin on a single ratio whatever I do, and use my hands to draft differing amounts of fibre — or simply allow the fibre to make the yarn it wanted to.

I’m not sure that I fully understand the wheel ratio thing – I can’t really see how it makes the difference to the bulk of the yarn (yet) although I understand about the amount of twist that it lets in. I have tended to view the ratios as speed governers. This may well be because I am coming at it from the death-grip dyed-in-the-wool worsted style spinning perspective. I have an inkling that using drafting methods that allow the twist into the draft are the ones that will show me the way…

It’s not easy, you know. These past years have been subject to the mantra “never let your twist get into the fibre”. It’s hard to let go – literally let go. I have much unlearning to do!

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