Spinzilla: How much fiber do I need?

IMG_2872-005Welcome! I’m excited to have been invited to join the Spinzilla blog tour. The purpose behind the Spinzilla competition during Spinning and Weaving Week, Oct 6‒12, is not only to learn more about handspinning, but to learn more by doing. When it comes to craft, theory is only truly useful when applied—when skills are honed through practice. Spinzilla urges us to make more time in our busy schedules to grab our spindles or sit down to our wheels and get spinning.


Soils are beautiful. By Bos, AB & JH KauffmanCC-BY-SA-3.0

Much of the way I approach textiles is framed by my background in agronomy. I studied soil chemistry at university, and while it might not seem that clay minerals have much to do with handspun sweaters, the spirit of their study is similar. We can take the measure of a soil in many ways: by studying the available nutrients, digging a hole and looking at how the soil formed in pre-history, and on and on. We can’t be certain how the soil will change over time due to the action of weather, soil organisms, and other factors, but our measurements can allow us to make some assumptions and educated guesses about what the future will hold. Textiles are the very same. Planning and creating a textile is a blend of science and art and educated guesses.

As we all start gathering fiber and planning projects for Spinzilla, you might be asking how much fiber you need to stockpile for certain projects. When we are new to spinning and ask more experienced handspinners this kind of question, we usually receive the oft uttered “It depends…” response. And it does. There isn’t a short answer, and I can’t show you a chart that will tell you exactly how many ounces of fiber you will need to knit a sweater. Why? Because there are so many variables, not the least of which is the differences in our unique handspun yarns. A skein is the product of our fiber, our wheel, our technique—and sometimes our mood! The more experienced we become, the more subtle the changes and the more control we have over them.  But we leave our own unique fingerprint on the yarns we create, and we can find a bit of ourselves in their texture.

Two sweaters spun from Shetland roving from Sheep Street Fibers. Sweater on left is my first handknit sweater, weighing nearly two pounds. I spun and knit the sweater on left years later. It weighs just over one pound.

Two sweaters spun from Sheep Street Fibers shetland roving. Sweater on left is my first handknitted sweater, worsted spun and weighing nearly two pounds. I spun and knit the sweater on right years later using a woolen draw—it weighs about one pound.

I can’t answer your query, “How much fiber do I need?”—but you can.

There is always room in handspinning for the “two pounds ought to do it” approach. However, if you are making a special project and you don’t want to run out of yarn, you might want some more concrete figures. To estimate how much fiber is needed to make a given project, you need to determine:
(a) how many yards you will need to spin, and
(b) how many yards of finished yarn can be spun from the fiber you would like to use.

If you have already picked a project to spin for, you likely know how many yards you need. For knit and crochet, check out the yardage requirements for similar projects. (Ravelry is great for this.) If you are weaving, most beginning weaving books will offer guidance on calculating yardage, as does Alden Amos in the Big Book of Handspinning on pg. 249.

The second thing we need to know is yards per pound, which is also called grist or simply YPP. For a given fiber, the YPP for a finer gauge yarn will be higher than that of a heavier gauge yarn. (You can get more yards from a merino top if you spin it laceweight rather than bulky, right?) The reason this measurement is so useful to us spinners is that it goes beyond gauge—it takes the density of a yarn into account as well. The denser the yarn, the fewer yards you will get from a pound of fiber. Many folks use a yarn balance to determine YPP.

Merino dyed top from Abstract Fiber in Laurelhurst.

Merino dyed top from Abstract Fiber in Laurelhurst.

Just this week I have been planning a handspun Among the Birches shawl. I started with a 4 ounce braid of merino top, and I wanted to find out if I had enough fiber to make a slightly narrower version of the shawl from fulled singles. I spun up several samples of singles and fulled them. I pulled out my yarn balance and snipped a handspun sample until the balance arm was level. Then I repeated this twice more. The more samples you do, the more accurate the reading.

[Note: The balance is designed to weigh a sample of your finished yarn. Here, my finished yarn is a singles yarn, but if I was planning a three-ply yarn, I would use a snippet of three-ply yarn that had been washed and fully dried.]

Lay a sample of yarn on the balance arm that is long enough that the arm is weighed down. Start snipping the sample until the balance arm is level.

Lay a sample of yarn on the balance arm that is long enough that the arm is weighed down. Start snipping the sample until the balance arm is level.

Now, you are ready to measure your samples.


I measure the yarn completely lax and under some tension for two separate readings. This will give me a range of YPP to work with.

Without tension, this sample measured 26 inches, under tension it measured 27 inches. Multiply that value by 100 and I have a yardage range of 2,600 to 2,700 YPP. My 4 ounce top (a quarter pound) should give me about 650-675 yards based on my samples. The pattern calls for 900, so I should have enough for a scarf version. Off I go!

Ah... cast on bliss.

Ah… cast-on bliss.

It’s also important to remember that our measurements are only as exact as our testing samples and tools. What’s a spinner to do? Practice, of course. The more yards that pass through your fingertips, the more adept you will be at understanding small differences in your yarns. And in turn, you will be more comfortable with the fine art of the educated guess. So, go forth and spin!

2014 Spinzilla Blog Tour

7/8 Team Spinzilla—Why Make Yarn At All The Blog Tour Kick Off!
7/22 Kirsten Kapur—Choosing a Pattern for Handspinning
8/5 Kate Larson—How Much Fiber Do I Need?
8/19 Sara Lamb—Productive Spinning
9/2 Jacey Boggs—Plying
9/16 Gale Zucker—Photographing Your Work

Over 50 teams are participating in the Spinzilla competition this year and team member registration is now open. Team spinners can sign up for their favorite team until Sept 22, and rogue spinners can sign up until Oct 3. See the Spinzilla website to register. In 2013, over 600 spinners competed on 27 teams and as individual rogue spinners. They collectively spun nearly 1.4 million yards of yarn. Come join the fun!

Among the Birches

Norway is known for its tales of trolls, but a long oral tradition also exists surrounding the Hidden Folk. Huldra the elf-maiden, who is sometimes helpful and sometimes dangerous, is one of the best known characters. Huldra appears in the novel Kristen Lavransdatter as the elf-maiden that attempts to lure a young Kristen into the forest.

Kristen Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset.

Kristen Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset. I know there is a newer translation, but I absolutely adore my 1946 edition.

“She stooped over the water and saw her own dark image rise from the bottom and grow clearer as it came to meet her—and then in the mirror of the pool she saw another figure standing among the birches opposite and bending toward her. In haste she got upon her knees and gazed across. At first she thought it was the rock and the bushes clinging round its foot. But all at once she was aware of a face amid the leaves—there stood a lady, pale, with waving flaxen hair—and great, light-grey eyes and wide pink nostrils. . . She was clad in something light, leaf-green, and branches and twigs hid her up to the broad breasts, which were covered over with brooches and sparkling chains.” —From Kristen Lavransdatter by Nobel Laureate Sigrid Undset.

So, when I decided to design a project for the upcoming publication, Enchanted Knits, Undset’s Huldra surfaced in my mind. I set to work developing a lace pattern with a reversible birch leaf motif.


Enchanted Knits 2014 Photos: Christa Tippmann.

Enchanted Knits 2014 Photos: Christa Tippmann.

Written in 1920, Kristen Lavransdatter is an epic historical novel set in fourteenth-century Norway. The story follows Kristen from childhood through a lifetime’s struggle with love and loss. Author Sigrid Undset (1882-1949), the daughter of a Norwegian archaeologist, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928.


Summer Grazing: featuring Alvina and Joan


Border Leicester sheep are wonderful grazers, becoming ever more proficient as they mature. At first glance, they may appear to nibble the forages indiscriminately, but they are actually feeling the plants with their lips and selecting what they want to eat. This isn’t as obvious when they are out on lush pasture where everything is tasty, but is easier to see when they are on rougher forage. I love to watch (and hear) them carefully select and munch at speed. Though it’s hard to hear in this video, there is a lip-smacking noise that the sheep often make as part of the selecting process. Listening to thirty sheep making this little pop, pop, pop noise all at once is impressive!

In this video is little Vina at three months, followed by Joan, a professional grazer if I ever saw one! They are in the back corner of a pasture that is over-mature (as happens when haymaking is late due to a wet spring/summer), so there are plenty of weeds, which the farmer regrets, but the sheep eat them with relish. Those of you in my local knitting and spinning classes will have probably heard tales of Joan’s noble ferocity and gallant nature. She’s also a bit piggy. Vina is her granddaughter.


I am using portable fencing to create small paddocks within the pasture. You can see the movable posts on the far side of the paddock. Each day, the sheep get a new strip of grass, because as we all know, grass is greener on the other side. This keeps them moving forward and reduces the area that they regraze.

A yearling Horned Dorset hanging out with the Leicesters.

A yearling Horned Dorset hanging out with the Leicesters.


Here they are at about six -weeks old, learning to graze and follow the group to pasture.

Here they are at about six-weeks old, learning to graze and follow the group to pasture.


Telemark to Tinkuy


, , , , , , ,

Textiles—a heady word that encompasses cloth from all times, all places, and for all purposes. It connects everything from farm fields to Haute Couture, pre-historic peoples to glorious textured yarns spun with art batts. Every corner of the fiber-centric community that I am excited to be a part of is filled with interesting people asking interesting questions. Exploring even one textile technique or tradition can be a life’s work. And the people who immerse themselves in learning, traveling, and creating textiles tend to be passionate about sharing the object of their passion. We are so lucky that they do!

Have you seen the current issue of Spin-Off? It’s filled to the brim with world textile stories written by people driven to learn more. Ercil Howard-Wroth shares her trip to Tinkuy, Peru; Linda Ligon details thigh spinning in Mexico; and so much more. I was excited to have the opportunity to include Norway’s embroidered handcoverings in the mix. I’ve talked a bit about Norwegian handcoverings here and here, but editors Amy Clarke Moore and Anne Merrow gave me the opportunity to share more about the history of these special textiles and include a pattern for spinning and knitting your very own embroidered handcoverings.

Spin-Off Summer 2014 Photo: Joe Coca.

Spin-Off Summer 2014 Photo: Joe Coca. Telemark Rose Gloves by Kate Larson.

The Telemark Rose Gloves combine elements of many different extant gloves from Telemark, Norway, that I have been lucky enough to see in museum collections and in print and online resources. You can browse through some of Telemark’s remarkable embroidered handcoverings in the Digitalt Museum online collection. For more information, check the pattern details on Ravelry.

Counting Sheep


, , , ,

Spring has sprung—and the lambs are bouncing! I have spent much of the last few weeks in the barn. I’ll still spend (too) much of my time with the sheep in the next month—not as a vigilant midwife, but for the sheer pleasure of watching the lambs grow and learn and play.

Jane has done well in her first few weeks of motherhood.

Jane has done well in her first few weeks of motherhood.

There always seems to be one or two lambs in every bunch that loves to strike a charming pose for the camera—Retty is the girl of the year. You can see her here on the left. Marian isn’t more than a few minutes older, but likes to fuss over her smallish sister.


Tess had beautiful twins again this year—meet Retty (left) and Marian.


Retty again—I can’t get enough of this girl!

Spring forward.


, , ,

Here in Indiana, we should already be seeing glimpses of spring by now, but alas… This winter has been especially cold and snowy, so we are all anxiously awaiting warmer weather. I typically schedule my ewes to lamb when the grass will be ready to graze, so they should start to arrive in mid-April. While we await their arrival, I posted a video of the lambs from last year. Nothing brings warmth and cheer quite like bouncing, joyful lambs—enjoy!

For more smiling lamb pictures, check out this post. 

Part Third: Solstice and stavkirke.


, , , , , ,

This is the third and final installment about my 2013 trip to Scotland, Shetland, and Norway.

My first fjord. Flam, Norway.

View of the fjord from the ferry headed to Flåm.


We left Shetland and took the short flight to Bergen in western Norway on Midsummer’s Eve. Our hotel was near the university, which has a fantastic museum with a number of knitted artifacts on exhibit. I was surprised to see a few of them were pieces I had studied closely in some of my favourite knitting books, and I greeted them like old friends. (Like the sweater on page 14 of Susanne Pagoldh’s Nordic Knitting.) The museum’s permanent collection includes the earliest knitted fragment found in Norway to date. I was rapturous when I saw that it was included in the current exhibit. The fragment has been dated to the early sixteenth century. Translating the placard, I learned that it is knit in stockinette stitch using 2-ply wool, which was plied S (left). It appears to be fulled and is about 10 sts to the inch. The fragment was discovered during excavation in Bergen’s historic Bryggen area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Since Bergen was a historically important trading port, determining whether this piece originated in Norway is difficult. I can’t share a picture of this lovely artifact, but here are some images from Bergen. Click on any image to open the gallery.

We were also able to visit the home of Edvard Grieg.

We were also able to visit the home of Edvard Grieg, Norway’s famous composer. The doorway on the left in this image leads to a beautiful concert hall overlooking the water.


I spent a blissful day at the Norsk Folkemuseum once we arrived in Oslo. Months before the trip, I arranged to visit the collections at the museum and selected a number of artifacts that I would like to see. When I arrived at the museum on a bright, sunny morning, I was met by the collections manager, Heidi.


Norsk Folkemuseum, which was founded in 1894, is located in a beautiful area of Oslo called Bygdøy.

Here is an example of the artifacts I was so very lucky to see. You can find these gloves (and more) on the digitaltmuseum.no database, and they are currently part of a new knitting exhibit at the Folkemuseum. These fingervanter (gloves) (NF.1901-0502AB) are particularly fine and well-preserved examples of fulled and embroidered handcoverings from the Telemark region. They were added to the museum collection in 1901. They are woolen—knitted and intensely fulled, with added cuffs of fulled cloth.

Photo: Anne-Lise Reinsfelt for Norsk Folkemuseum This image is unaltered and licensed under Creative Commons 3.0.

NF.1901-0502AB Vott, fingervante. Photo: Anne-Lise Reinsfelt for Norsk Folkemuseum. This image is unaltered and licensed under Creative Commons 3.0.

Do these gloves set your heart racing, too? One of the reasons I wanted to take a closer look at this particular pair is that there appeared to be several types of woolen embroidery thread used, and that is indeed the case. The elaborate Telemark-style patterns on the back of the hand are done with matte, 3 (or more) ply yarn, and the embroidered initials are done with a silky, 2-ply yarn. Itching to make your own? I wrote an article for the summer 2014 issue of Spin-Off about these yarns, their history, and how to spin your own. In the meantime, allow me to show you my favourite corner of the internet.

Step 1: Connect to NRK Folkemusikk, the Norwegian Broadcasting Company’s folk music station. (Also available through iTunes.)
Step 2: Dive into the collections at digitaltmuseum.com.

View from the newly-tarred twelfth century stave church.

View from the newly-tarred thirteenth-century stave church at Norsk Folkemuseum, Oslo, Norway.

How to Make Dorset Buttons

Feb 20, 2014 webinar —            Register Online.

I’m happy to announce my upcoming webinar: How to Make Dorset Buttons. Join me on February 20, 2014 at 1pm EST.


These special buttons have a fascinating history. For three hundred years, intricately patterned buttons were produced in Dorset, England. Most often, these small, soft buttons were made by wrapping linen thread around a wire ring. With the invention of machine-made buttons in the mid-nineteenth century, the Dorset button industry all but disappeared.


I’m excited to share tips and tricks for making beautiful buttons using both traditional materials and modern knitting yarns in this live presentation.


I’ve also included a knitting pattern that incorporates Dorset buttons to get your creativity flowing. The Gold Hill Cowl combines a straight-forward lace pattern with my favourite one-row buttonhole—a great way to show off your button-making skills!

Gold Hill 3


The Secret Language of Mittens


, , ,

These mittens were in the collection of a first-generation Norwegian American who's family originated in Selbu, an area of Norway famous for its mittens and gloves. Photo used with permission Vesterheim Norwegian American Musuem, Decorah, Iowa. Photo: Kate Larson.

These mittens were in the collection of a first-generation American whose family originated in Selbu, an area of Norway famous for its mittens and gloves. Photo used with permission: Vesterheim Norwegian-American Musuem, Decorah, Iowa. Photo: Kate Larson.

During the nineteenth century, Norway, like much of the world, was rapidly changing. In 1814, Norway declared its independence (officially dissolving the union with Sweden in 1905). By the 1830s, Norwegians were migrating to North America by the thousands in search of new opportunities. Many of these immigrants took small cultural mementos, like mittens, with them as they forged new and unknown paths. And some of those mittens that were carried across the sea by boat in wooden trunks eventually made their way into the collections of some wonderful museums, such as the Nordic Heritage Musuem in Seattle, Washington, and Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa. 

I am fascinated by the immigrant experience—the process of interpreting a new culture, bringing some traditions forward and leaving others behind. Being particularly interested in material culture and textiles, I find collections of letters written by immigrants especially useful. In Solveig Zempel’s wonderful book, In Their Own Words: Letters from Norwegian Immigrants, you can read about Berta Serina Kingestad, a single mother who settled in Illinois. In an 1889 letter home to Norway, Berta asked her family to send her black wool which she could spin with white American wool on a borrowed spinning wheel. She hoped to knit new woolens for her baby, Sven. Berta’s letters were the inspiration for one of my recent knitting patterns, Mittens for Sven. This stranded baby mitten pattern is included in Baby Knits From Around the World, a collection of patterns edited by Kari Cornell and published by Creative Publishing International.

BabyKnits cover

Seeking Autumn


With the first hints of turning leaves in the air, I start to relax. The smell of autumn is a welcome reminder that the long, busy days of summer and early fall on the farm do draw to a close. The farm has been a flurry of activity this year. We built a new barn for the sheep this spring and have been renovating fields and pastures. The lambs born this spring, which you can see here, are growing and are also enjoying the cool evenings.

This is what I usually get when I try to take pictures of the lambs.

This is what I usually get when I try to take pictures of the lambs. Here is Erlend, who is refusing to stand three feet away from the camera and strike a charming pose.

Gerald is much more calm and kind than his namesake.

Gerald is a more calm and peaceful fellow than his namesake in Women in Love.

Due to the pasture renovations, most of the sheep are in the new barn this fall. It is big and airy and sunny, but they would much rather be out of doors. Luckily for them, we have a bumper-crop of Giant Ragweed this year. In the evenings, I drag a dozen of the six-foot weeds into the barn, to the great pleasure of the captive flock.

Gerald and his friends are out in a separate pasture and are enjoying the cool evenings.

Sheep Sept13-002

My dad and grandfather renovating a pasture.

We are trying a variety of new forages in this pasture renovation. My dad is a Research Fellow at IUPUI as well as a farmer, so these on-farm trials are the result of much study and thought—as you might expect! This field was the first cleared on the farm toward the end of the 1800s—a bit late for this area in Indiana. Sitting adjacent to the house and barns, it has always been used for the farm’s horses. I found a horseshoe that was turned up by the tillage. My grandfather said, based on the shape, that it probably belonged to a horse my great-grandfather Urbane called New Deal. This seeder was one of Urbane’s purchases and the owner’s manual, which is still tucked inside a toolbox attached to the hitch, has detailed instructions on how to connect it to a team of horses. It was very sophisticated when new, and still does a great job. It makes a distinctive, antique sound when in use, mostly due to chains that drag on the soil surface to partially cover the seeds.

More to come.

Renewed and revived. The sheep will enjoy the fruits of this effort next spring.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 107 other followers