The Zen of Spinning Silk

Sara Lamb shares her advice on how to spin the wide variety of silk available to handspinners.

Linda Ligon Nov 3, 2015 - 3 min read

The Zen of Spinning Silk Primary Image

Colorful silk fibers and red and yellow handspun silk yarn.

The first time I tried to spin silk, I made a mess. It was a silk brick, which is basically a long, long thick batt. I didn't know to pull it into strips, or pre-draft, or anything else. I just started feeding a bit of it into the orifice. If you've ever spun silk, you will be able to visualize the unfortunate results. This happened at one of the earliest Spin-Off Autumn Retreats, right out in public, and fortunately the place was teeming with more experienced spinners than I.

The best trick I was shown, after I had unsnarled my wheel and rescued the rest of the batt, was spinning from the fold. So simple, so obvious, but I wouldn't have thought of it by myself. You just pull off a piece of fiber, fold it over your index finger, and use the point of the fold as the apex of your drafting triangle. It's a lovely technique for spinning any kind of long combed fiber, and it's the first one that Sara Lamb shows in her new video, Spinning Silk.

Sara Lamb demonstrates spinning silk from the fold in her video.

Silk has a reputation of being hard to spin, but I think that's because of people like me, jumping in without understanding about its special properties—and a few basic steps that can make the process go as smooth as . . . well, silk. Watching Sara's hands as she spins various kinds and variations, from Bombyx to tussah and from bricks to caps, is sort of like watching fish swim in an aquarium. It looks so effortless, so graceful, so inevitable.

I've spun a lot of silk since that first debacle—it's really my favorite fiber—but even so, I learned a lot from Sara in this video. I learned that it's not a good idea to pinch off the twist as the yarn winds on; it should just flow over your hand in a continuous motion. I learned some good common-sense guidelines for spinning knitting yarns versus weaving yarns, too. New for me is her approach to dyeing and handpainting: simple, no-fuss, with stunning results.

I think her best advice, though, is about knowing when to "let go and let it be." You don't have to pick out every little gnarl; you don't have to be perfectly consistent. She knows by touch and instinct when the twist is right, and she makes subliminal judgments about what imperfections will affect the finished piece and which will give it an elegantly handcrafted character. Hopefully we can all learn to do the same.