Characteristics of spun yarn vary based on the material used, fiber length and alignment, quantity of fiber used, and degree of twist.
The origins of spinning fiber to make string or yarn are lost in time, but archaeological evidence in the form of representation of string skirts has been dated to the Upper Paleolithic era, some 20,000 years ago. In the most primitive type of spinning, tufts of animal hair or plant fiber are rolled down the thigh with the hand, and additional tufts are added as needed until the desired length of spun fiber was achieved. Later, the fiber was fastened to a stone which was twirled round until the yarn was sufficiently twisted, whereupon it was wound upon the stone and the process repeated over and over.
The next method of twisting yarn was with the spindle, a straight stick eight to twelve inches long on which the thread was wound after twisting. At first it had a cleft or split in the top in which the thread was fixed; later a hook of bone was added to the upper end. The bunch of wool or plant fibers is held in the left hand; with the right hand the fibers are drawn out several inches and the end fastened securely in the slit or hook on the top of the spindle. A whirling motion is given to the spindle on the thigh or any convenient part of the body; the spindle is then dropped, twisting the yarn, which is wound on the upper part of the spindle. Another bunch of fibers is drawn out, the spindle is given another twirl, the yarn is wound on the spindle, and so on.
The distaff was used for holding the bunch of wool, flax, or other fibers. It was a short stick on one end of which was loosely wound the raw material. The other end of the distaff was held in the hand, under the arm or thrust in the girdle of the spinner. When held thus, one hand was left free for drawing out the fibers.
A spindle containing a quantity of yarn rotates more easily, steadily and continues longer than an empty one, hence the next improvement was the addition of a weight called a spindle whorl at the bottom of the spindle. These whorls are discs of wood, stone, clay, or metal with a hole in the center for the spindle, which keep the spindle steady and promote its rotation. Spindle whorls appeared in the Neolithic era..
The spinning jenny, a multi-spool spinning wheel invented circa 1764 by James Hargreaves, dramatically reduced the amount of work needed to produce yarn, with a single worker able to work eight or more spools at once. At roughly the same time, Richard Arkwright and a team of craftsmen developed the spinning frame, which produced a stronger thread than the spinning jenny. Too large to be operated by hand, a spinning frame powered by a waterwheel became the water frame.
The direction in which the yarn is spun is called twist. Yarns are characterized as Z-twist or S-twist according to the direction of spinning (see diagram). Tightness of twist is measured in TPI (twists per inch or turns per inch)
Two or more spun yarns may be twisted together or plied to form a thicker yarn. Generally, handspun single plies are spun with a Z-twist, and plying is done with an S-twist.
Within the recent past, many new spinners have joined into this ancient process, innovating the craft and creating new techniques. From using many new applications of dyeing before spinning, to mixing in random elements (Christmas Garland, eccentric beads, money, etc.) that would not be in a traditional yarn, to creating new techniques like coiling, this craft is constantly evolving and shifting.
To make various yarns, besides adding random elements, spinners can vary all the same things as in a machined yarn, i.e. the fiber, the preparation, the color, the spinning technique, the direction of the twist, etc. A common misconception is yarn spun from rolags may not be as strong, but the strength of a yarn is actually based on the length of hair fiber and the degree of twist. When working with shorter hairs, such as llama or angora rabbit, the spinner may choose to integrate longer fibers, such as mohair, to prevent yarn breakage. Yarns made of shorter fibers are thus also given more twist than yarns of longer fibers, and are generally spun with the short draw technique.
The fiber can be dyed at any time, but is often dyed before carding or after the yarn has been spun.
Wool may be spun before or after washing, although excessive amounts of lanolin may make spinning difficult, especially when using a drop-spindle. Careless washing may cause felting; when done prior to spinning this often leads to unusable wool fiber. In washing wool the key thing to avoid is too much agitation and fast temperature changes from hot to cold. Generally washing is done lock by lock in warm water with dish-soap.
A tightly spun wool yarn with no air in it is called worsted; it is handspun from a roving or combed top, and the fibers all lie in the same direction as the yarn. A woolen yarn, in contrast, is handspun from a rolag, where the fibers are not as strictly aligned to the yarn created. The woolen yarn thus captures much more air, and makes for a softer and generally bulkier yarn. There are two main techniques to create these different yarns; short draw creates worsted yarns, and long draw creates woolen yarns. Often a spinner will spin using a combination of both techniques, and thus make a semi-worsted yarn.
Short draw spinning is used to create worsted yarns. It is spun from combed roving, sliver or wool top. The spinner keeps their hands very close to each other. The fibers are held, fanned out, in one hand, and the other hand pulls a small number from the mass. The twist is kept between the second hand and the wheel- there is never any twist between the two hands.
Long draw is spun from a carded rolag. The rolag is spun without much stretching of the fibers from the cylindrical configuration. This is done by allowing twist into a short section of the rolag, and then pulling back, without letting the rolag change position in your hands, until the yarn is the desired thickness. The twist will concentrate in the thinnest part of the roving, thus when the yarn is pulled, the thicker sections with less twist will tend to thin out. Once the yarn is the desired thickness, enough twist is added to make the yarn strong. Then the yarn is wound onto the bobbin, and the process starts again.
Spinning in the grease only works really well if the fleece is newly sheared. After several months the lanolin becomes sticky, which makes it harder to spin using the short draw technique, and almost impossible to spin using the long draw technique. In general, spinners using the long draw technique do not spin in the grease.
Spinners who don't spin in the grease generally buy their fibers pre-washed and carded, in the form of tow or roving. This means less work for the spinner, as they do not have to wash the lanolin out. It also means that one can spin predyed fiber, or blends of fibers, which are very hard to create when the wool is still in the grease. As machine carders cannot card wool in the grease, pre-carded yarn generally isn't spun in the grease. Some spinners, however, use spray on lanolin-like products to get the same feel of spinning in the grease with this carded fiber.