Handspinning is not Hard… Except the Vocabulary

If you’re getting into handspinning, or if you want to talk about handspinning with anyone, you will quickly fall into the dreaded mire of spinning vocabulary. Spinners have a lot of vocabulary. To make the experience extra painful, they fight over it. Not fist fights. No one gets a black eye over these arguments (I hope). But if you hang out in a spinning related forum on ravelry long enough you are bound to come across a fierce debate over whether not a bag of fiber is sliver or top, combed or carded (and then slit into long lengths to look like combed). These spinners care deeply if their yarn is from a semi-worsted prep and spun semi-woolen or if its a semi-woolen prep and spun semi-worsted and what it should be properly called.

I, on the other hand, read these debates while throwing french fries at my screen and yelling “Oh just go freaking spin something!”

Vocabulary is, in my not-so-humble opinion, for helping us to understand each and not for fighting over. When the Feline Overlord achieves her goal and becomes Dictator Of The Earth, I, as her Most Beloved Human Minion will put a stop to all of that nonsense. Until then, I’ll just do my best to keep the my spinning vocabulary simple and ignore everyone else.

So here it is, my attempt at clearing up waters that are hopelessly muddled.

Some Terms for Handspinners

There are two main classifications of yarn in handspinning: worsted and woolen. A worsted spun yarn has nothing to do with how thick it is. That would be worsted weight and that’s not what is implied by worsted-spun. Its very possible (and common) to have a worsted-spun fingering weight yarn. Likewise, a woolen-spun yarn has nothing to do with the fiber its made from. Its very possible (and common) to have a woolen-spun alpaca yarn.

See what I mean about muddied? Are you sure you don’t want to give this up and just go play in the fiber stash? Well, okay. Onward.

Worsted-spun yarn has straight parallel fibers. Its has a smooth surface with little to no “hairiness” or halo. Its tough, wears well, and pills less. Most commercial yarn is spun worsted.

Woolen-spun yarn has fibers going all different directions. The fibers in the yarn overlap and criss-cross each other. This makes for a “hairy” yarn. If you look at it closely, a woolen-spun yarn seems to have a halo all around it. It will pill faster and doesn’t stand up to hard wear very well. Why make a woolen-spun yarn? Its soft and shmushy and warmer. All of those fibers going every which way traps a lot of air. You can make a warmer yarn/garment with less fiber.

But first, before the spinning starts, you have to pick the right fiber to spin. In order to get a true worsted-spun yarn or true woolen-spun yarn, the fiber must be prepared in very certain ways. That’s why you will sometimes see fiber for sale marked as “worsted-prep” or “woolen-prep”.


Let’s start with what worsted-prep used to mean when it was done by hand. (Today so much is done in mills with huge machines and there is a lot of corners being cut and “cheating” going on in that industry and it seems to drive the purists a little crazy.) Fiber prepared for worsted spinning is done with combs, big scary looking combs that you can totally imagine being used by the next movie-psycho-bad-guy Hollywood dreams up.

Wool combs for worsted preperationCombs from The Woolery

These combs arrange the fibers in one direction. They should also separate the short “bad” fibers from the long “good” ones.  If its done right all the fibers were arranged before combing so that it goes from sheared end to tips, preserving the natural direction of the fiber. Sometimes its has oil, lanolin oil, added back into the fiber to give it a sheen and keep stray fibers from popping out.

As I said above, in the commercial mills there are machines which mimic the results you would get with hand combs. Results vary. Its sold under the names roving, top, combed top, and sliver. All of that is intended to be spun worsted. Its usually looks like this:

worsted-prep fiber

Woolen prep

A fiber that’s been prepped for woolen spinning has been carded. There are hand carders and drum carders.

Drum Carder from Louet

Carded fiber is fluffy. Those fibers are sort of lined up but not perfectly and there is lots of air trapped in there. If you’re working with hand carders, you get these little batches that are gently rolled in to rolags. A drum carder will give you a bigger batch, almost like a sheet. Those sheets are rolled up and called batts. Carded fiber is harder to package, store, and ship because its essentially a big wool pillow. You usually find it for sale at fiber shows.

An open batt of alpaca for woolen spinning

How you Hold the Fiber Matters

Once you have identified the prep, you pair it up with how the fiber is drafted as you spin.

If you have worsted-prep fiber and you spin it with those fibers lined up parallel to the direction you are drafting in, you are spinning worsted.

worsted spinning

If you use woolen-prep fiber, and hold it perpendicular to the direction of draft, you are spinning woolen.

woolen spinning

There you go. Worsted and Woolen. That’s not too bad right? But then spinners start mucking around and things like this happen:

  • You take your roving/top/sliver and pull off hunks, hold it sideways and spin. That’s … semi-woolen.

holding roving sideways for semi-woolen spinning

  • You take your rolag or batt and hold it parallel to the direction of draft. That’s… semi-worsted.

semi-worsted spinning

I’m going to stop there. There are more classifications in use but, frankly I don’t care for them. I once saw an advertisement for a class (one of those “pay $19.99 and download this video” classes) that promised to teach me the 17 different definitive styles of worsted and woolen spinning methods. Really? 17?

No thank-you. I’d rather take my $19.99 down to the LYS, buy some fiber with it, and you know, spin yarn.


21 thoughts on “Handspinning is not Hard… Except the Vocabulary

  1. I agree with you, almost entirely. The one exception I would heartily prefer to see done properly is for vendors of fiber to learn/know how to differentiate between roving and top/sliver because I pretty much hate roving and if I want to make roving I can….from top, using my hand cards or my drum carder!


  2. I totally agree with you – just spin something! The technicalities will come naturally as you learn. My pet hate is z twist and s twist. I always use the terms clockwise and anti clockwise but have had other spinners look at me like I’m an ignoramus – too much jargon alienates new spinners.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree. Too much jargon is a barrier and makes newcomers feel awkward.

      Its also pretty contrived. Spinning comes to us from all over the world, and was developed by people who spoke so many different languages and had all their own style. The idea that today we have to all be the same kind of spinner is silly.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Excellent! Apparently I short draw worstead and long draw woolen! Or semi worsted depending on if a get a major slub. How utterly confusing. Great explanations with particularly helpful photos. Now I’m going to spin xxx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Of wonderful! And short draws for worsted, long draws for woolen is how its “supposed to be done”. I think. I blow off the traditional rules so much that I can barely remember them, lol. But I think you’re spot on!


    1. Hmm… Well they sort of apply. Cotton is sold in a sliver prep which most people spin in the worsted way. I personally do. I take that sliver and strip in, turn it into thin long strips and then spin worsted. But you can also my cotton punis, whcih are just mini-rolags and those are intended for woolen spin. I have some punis in my stash but i haven’t tried them yet.

      Btw, ever tried a cotton/silk blend? That makes the spinning a bit easier in my experience.


  4. I confess to now having purchased one of those classes AND IT IS great (she doesn’t say her class r the many methods she demonstrates are definitive or all you’ll ever need to know). I personally love her video class, except that now I need to learn to spin all over again in order to rid myself of many bad habits 😦


    1. lol. Well! Huh!

      As long as you don’t ever let that sort of thing ruin your love and fun and enjoyment of spinning. For me the making of yarn is just magical. And imperfect yarn can be so beautiful!


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