I work regularly with fine yarns – and have been going to increasingly fine and delicate yarns recently. Here are some things I’ve discovered along the way (some recently, some not) that make working with fine yarns easier.
Please note that I do not pretend to be an expert, or to have the best solution – this is just what has worked for me. I’d love comments with other tips and tricks!
Dyeing Fine Yarns
- I use lots of skein ties – for really fine yarns, up to every four inches around the skein. I use figure-eight ties, though, not ties with multiple crosses in the skein, which can bunch up the skein and result in white spots. (One person recommended “crocheting around” the skein, but I couldn’t figure out how to do that.)
- Either tie a “bracelet” around the skein or use a wire covered with vinyl a la Sandra Rude’s blog post to handle the skein, so you disturb it as little as possible while moving it around.
- Don’t swoosh the skein around in the dyepot – use the “bracelet” to lift it in and out of the dyepot occasionally to ensure even dyeing. Just lift it out and then put it back in. Periodically rotate the skein around whatever you’re using to lift the skein, so the top portion doesn’t compress together.
- Avoid doing anything to compress the yarn. (Not a problem for 60/2 silk or thicker, in my experience, but can be problematic with really fine yarns.) Spin skeins out with a salad spinner or in your washer, rather than bundling them in towels and squeezing.
- Once the yarn is dry, thwack the skeins against a hard smooth surface (I use a table) to loosen the skein. You can also “snap” the skeins (insert both hands into the skein and “snap” them apart, opening up the skein), which works for things like 60/2 silk but has the potential to cause breakage in really delicate yarns.
Unwinding delicate yarns
My first key principle for winding delicate yarns is to do everything possible not to break the yarn. With super-fine yarns especially, finding the end can be difficult, and you really don’t want to break the skein except as an absolute last resort.
Which leads to the second key: don’t jerk the yarn. Wind as evenly as possible – how evenly depends on the strength of the yarn. With stronger yarns like 60/2 silk, I find that it’s possible to wind straight onto a pirn or cone; the yarn is strong enough to take the variable pull as the yarn moves up and down the conical end. With weaker yarns, you may have to wind onto a spool or bobbin first, as they wind on much more smoothly.
The last key is not to stress the yarn. This means using as lightweight a swift as you can find. I find 60/2 silk works just fine on a wooden umbrella swift, but more delicate yarns do better with a lightweight swift.
- Use the lightest weight of swift you can find. Heavy swifts will stress out the yarn and are more likely to break it on starting, due to their greater angular momentum.
- Wax or grease the center hub of the swift so it turns more freely.
- Per Giovanna Imperia, swifts with flat arms are superior to umbrella swifts, because they allow you to spread out the skein instead of bunching it up in the center, which produces tangles. (I haven’t tried a swift with flat arms yet but intend to try it out!)
- If using an umbrella swift, mount it so the axis is horizontal – it lets the swift turn more freely, reducing strain on the yarn.
- I’ve found that Goko swifts (lightweight metal swifts with a horizontally mounted axis) work very well but only accept a limited range of skein sizes. The Lacis swift with 1/8″ steel rods inserted into the blue plastic tubing seems to work as well for small skeins. And a wooden swift with flat arms may be in my future!
- Choose something that will wind evenly and smoothly, and can start up slowly enough that the yarn doesn’t break.
- Things that I’ve found work well:
- Double-ended electric bobbin winder with foot pedal, with a block stuck under the foot pedal to regulate the maximum speed. Bring it gradually up to speed, then press the pedal into the block (“flooring it”) to give a constant speed. You will have to experiment to find the right position for the block. With a stronger yarn like 60/2 silk, I can wind directly onto pirns; with a really delicate yarn, I’ve had best results winding onto a spool or bobbin, then onto cones or pirns. The spool/bobbin gives a more even winding surface and puts less stress on the yarn.
- Manual ball winder (wrap and tape an index card around the core before winding, so the ball doesn’t collapse on you). This goes smoothly and slowly enough that you have time (if quick) to catch a snarl before the yarn snaps. Downside is that it takes forever (especially with fine yarns!) and is rough on the shoulder – if you are winding lots of fine yarn repetitive stress injury is a real possibility.
- Things that I have had problems with:
- Manual cone winder. I’m still not sure exactly why, but it broke really delicate yarns consistently, even at slow speeds.
- Silver Needles electric cone winder. It starts up with a powerful jerk and continues to yank the yarn at both ends of the cone, breaking the yarn. I find I can’t use it for anything finer than 30/2 silk.
- Thwack the (still tied) skeins against a hard smooth surface (I use a table) to loosen the skein. You can also “snap” the skeins (insert both hands into the skein and “snap” them apart, opening up the skein), which works for things like 60/2 silk but has the potential to cause breakage in really delicate yarns.
- Put skein on swift. Remove the ties.
- Find an end, and start unreeling it. Unreel a few turns; it should come off smoothly. If it doesn’t, you may need to fiddle with it a bit, or start unwinding from the opposite end.
- Start your chosen winding equipment SLOWLY (so as not to break the yarn).
- Wind off at an even pace. I found that with 60/2 silk, I could wind directly onto a pirn or cone; the yarn is strong enough to withstand the uneven tug as the yarn goes up and down the conical end. With 30,000 yard per pound tram silk, which is much weaker, I had to wind onto a spool, which is flatter and results in a more even pull.
- If and when you break an end, try your best to find the loose end. I’ve been advised (by Kati Meek) that turning on your vacuum cleaner and using the hose attachment will help “pop out” the loose end, but haven’t tried it yet. If you absolutely can’t find the loose end, you can break the skein at a promising point and wind from there, but that way lies tangles (and madness!)
- If you are working with super-delicate threads, buy or make a few extra skeins to practice on. With my superfine tram silk, I hopelessly tangled four small skeins before working out how to unwind them. There is a learning curve, and it will produce less angst if the skeins are smaller, since there is less to throw away.