Spinning Silk Is Not Scary

Devin Helmen encourages you to conquer your fear of spinning silk and shares tips for spinning silk hankies and top.

Devin Helmen Sep 21, 2020 - 7 min read

Spinning Silk Is Not Scary Primary Image

Devin enjoys spinning wild silk. The skeins shown here were spun for weaving. Left to right: tussah (cream), red eri (gold), and peduncle (gray). Photos by Devin Helmen

When I was a new spinner, I stuck to what was familiar, and what everyone told me was the easiest fiber to spin—wool. Wool fiber seems to assist the new handspinner in making a continuous thread, and at the time, I admit that I was intimidated by other fibers. Eventually, my curiosity got the better of my fear, and I started sampling camelid, bast, and silk fibers. Silk ranked second only to cotton in my preconceptions of difficulty. Whenever I imagined spinning silk, I visualized a slippery fiber escaping my control or snagging on my garden-rough hands. But I was determined to try it and purchased some tussah top and beautifully hand-dyed silk hankies at a fiber festival—the colors and shine overcoming my hesitation.

First Attempts at Spinning Silk

Silk Top
At the time, all of the resources I consulted said to spin silk top from the end, using a short forward draw. I tried this at my spinning wheel and on a spindle but had great difficulty drafting an even yarn and getting enough twist to hold the yarn together without making it wiry and overtwisted. (And silk is a fiber that can take a large amount of twist when spun fine.) I was so frustrated. I put the silk top aside to wait for a time when I felt more comfortable. One thing I was pleased to see was that the silk did not stick to my calluses or the roughness of my hands. The elaborate salt- or sugar-scrub recipes to smooth hands, which I had read about when looking up information on spinning silk, were not needed, at least not for me.

Silk Hankies
I did not let my struggles with top dissuade me. Next, I tried the silk hankies. I dutifully pre-drafted my hankies by making a hole in the middle and easing it wider and wider and attenuating until there was a break in the stretched-out fibers. Personally, I hated doing this; it hurt my wrists and my hands. Also, I had a very hard time keeping the attenuated-silk hanky from tangling. Spinning the pre-drafted hanky was just adding twist and was not something I enjoyed doing. But I was determined to spin something from the silk hankies, so I took the remaining hankies and a spindle to a weekly spin-in with a friend who worked near me. We met over lunch and spun. I tried different methods of working with hankies, until eventually, I found the one that worked for me.

How Devin Spins Silk Hankies on a Spindle

My way of spinning silk hankies is specific to spindles, as that is my favorite way to spin them.

  • First, I separate a thin layer from the mass of hankies and start drafting from the corner.
  • After I draft a length of about a foot or two, I use the hook of a top whorl spindle to catch it, give the spindle a thigh roll, to add twist, and then draft another length of fiber.
    Helmen-Silk-Hankies-to-Spindle

    Devin hooks a hankie.

  • I keep my hands shoulder width apart and draft, pulling in both directions. I leave my hands relaxed and my fiber supply hand palm up. I draft using the edge of my hand rather than pinched fingers.
    Helmen-Drafting-Silk

    Devin attenuates the hankie with his palm up.

  • Once I have drafted a shoulder width of fiber, I move my fiber supply hand to face palm down and pinch off the twist so it cannot go into the hankie while I let twist accumulate in the yarn and then wind on.
    Helmen-Pinch

    Devin pinches off the fiber supply.

  • I aim for a fine thread and actively encourage the slubs and chunks that are inherent in hankies to emerge in the yarn.

Slubby, irregular luxury yarn spun from silk hankies is one of my favorites, and I am currently in the process of spinning indigo-dyed silk hankies to use as a slubby weft for a woven piece.

Back to the Top

I still had silk top sitting in my stash, waiting for a second try, and I was lucky enough to get Sara Lamb’s advice on how to spin it. Following her guidance, I spin the silk top using a supported, or modified, long draw from the fold. To do this, I spin across my lap, using my forward hand to control the twist and my rear hand to draw out the new fiber sideways, creating almost a right angle. I then dance my fingers letting the twist into the fiber supply as I draft. I spin with a high-twist for both singles and plied yarn, and on a wheel, I prefer to use a lace flyer to insert twist rapidly. The Practical Spinners Guide—Silk (Interweave, 2014) by Sara Lamb provides everything one could want to know about spinning silk in one place. As I sampled other varieties of silk, I found that wild silks, such as eri, muga, tussah, and peduncle, are the easiest for me to spin. They seem to me to be more “toothy” than cultivated silk and more friendly to the spinner.

Helmen-From-the-Fold

Devin spins silk top from the fold, using a modified long draw, and across the body.

Begin with Blends

If you’re still nervous about spinning silk, I think blends are a great way to start. The combination of silk adds sheen and luxury to the base fiber and yarn, and the presence of a more familiar fiber gave me the confidence to start spinning silk. Two of my favorite blends to spin are yak/silk and Polwarth/silk, and one of my favorite fabrics I’ve woven with handspun yarn has a warp of yak/silk.

Helmen-Woven-Silk

Devin enjoys weaving with yarns spun from silk blends.

I encourage you to try spinning silk. It is not scary and can be a relaxing delight.

Devin Helmen has been immersed in fiber since learning to spin at age 8. They spin, knit, and weave in beautiful Minnesota. Devin enjoys writing and teaching about fiber arts and has a passion for spindles and everyday textiles. They blog, intermittently, at www.afewgreenfigs.blogspot.com.

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